The romance between Washington and Daniel Snyder’s football team has been strained for 15 years. The breakups, the tears, the anger and recriminations have come every few seasons. This must be rock bottom, the city thinks. Things will get better. We have put so much into the relationship; we share so many memories.
But now, with the firing of general manager Scot McCloughan last week and the prospect that quarterback Kirk Cousins may want to leave the toxic franchise ASAP, it may finally be time for Washington to start dating other teams.
Not a divorce, dividing up who gets the burgundy-and-gold trash can and who gets the Art Monk jersey. But a time to get some space, see what it’s like to go out with somebody who doesn’t embarrass you in public or make you sad. See what it’s like to go out with someone who shares your values, makes you proud.
The love affairs between towns and teams run in long cycles. They come with a sense of commitment, through thick and thin, that resembles a long relationship. That bond comes complete with the ugly chance that one side may take advantage of the affection that is given so unconditionally. What if one side ignores the bargain for years, playing the exploiter at first, then the cynical abuser? It can take a long time for the victim to awaken. Like, say, 18 years.
Washington and its heartthrob team fell for each other long ago when George Allen took the franchise, bereft of glory since World War II, to the Super Bowl after the 1972 season. That’s when the bond was formed. Joe Gibbs just forged it in iron. That reign has stayed intact for 45 years, though the last 24 seasons have produced no teams with better than a 10-6 record and only two playoffs wins — both mere wild-card games.
Now those imperious seigniorial rights over the region may be slackening. Glacially, yes. But, if you assume, as I do, that Snyder is owner for life, irreversibly.
Part of the shift has been going on for years as the Capitals and Nationals have built large identities in their sports. Both are not just better than Snyder’s team; they are so superior that they are in different conversations. They may be frustrated powerhouses, but they are respected and emulated. Snyder’s clown-car carousel sometimes spins around a couple of times before it derails again.
Snyder’s good luck as a marketer is that those teams have disappointed in the playoffs and squandered a chance to take market share. But since 2009, the Caps have lost in the round of eight five times and the Nats three times. Snyder’s team has only gone that far in the NFL playoffs once in the past 17 seasons.
The Caps, Nats and, recently, the hot Wizards, have offered their fan bases a series of true standouts, including Alex Ovechkin, Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer and John Wall. Since 1999, Snyder has produced one player who might evolve into a true star — Cousins — and has had to franchise tag him twice to keep him in town.
D.C.’s other major sport owners, Ted Leonsis and Ted Lerner, are a damaging contrast to Snyder in their personalities and values. The Redskins are cruel, sometimes almost sadistic in their public humiliations of employees. Few leave with their reputations intact. Or, like ex-offensive coordinator Sean McVay, and maybe Cousins before long, they flea Danville while their stock is still high.
Leonsis’s teams are forgiving to a fault in keeping decision-makers in place while Lerner’s Nats, in a dozen years, have barely had a smudge on their civic reputation. Last week, Snyder’s team just got its latest NFL drug suspension.
Verizon Center and Nationals Park are keys to D.C.’s downtown vitality and its Southeast Washington Waterfront reinvention. FedEx Field is an eyesore in the middle of nowhere that helps no one and is one of the worst fan experiences in pro sports.
Yet the region clings with befuddling loyalty to this team like an abused spouse to a bad mate. Perhaps aberrant psychology in groups mirrors individual neurosis.
But why are we talking about Snyder’s team at all? Look at the calendar. It’s time for March Madness. Then spring training morphs into Opening Day. Masters golf arrives next. Then the Caps and Wizards start playoff runs. Walk across South Capitol Street from Nationals Park to see work on D.C. United’s eye-popping 20,000-seat stadium, due to finish in 15 months.
Between now and September, there will be moments, like 15 minutes during the NFL draft, when this team is worth a look. But we already know what will be concocted in Ashburn. Something gaudy, shallow and mortifying. Something that shows, for the 19th straight year, that the boss is 99 percent huckster.
What about building something intrinsically excellent, something reputable that a region can hold affectionately like an heirloom handed down for decades? No glimmer, not one, of such a thing has appeared yet. So assume it never will.
In sports, symbolism matters. Fans are attracted to narrative and, eventually, feel they are an element of the team’s story themselves. Snyder understands that and counts on it. Whenever things go badly, which is usually, he does not seek a football solution first. Instead, he reaches for a rewrite of the team narrative, something splashy like a twice-fired scouting genius with a drinking problem who just might save the whole operation. That’s what keeps fans hooked.
But that narrative, that symbolism, changes — for each of us at our own rate. About every five years, Snyder’s team has been declared “a national joke.” We’re now, by my count, on the fourth iteration of the farce. Google “the Washington Redskins are a . . .” and the next word that’s prompted is “joke.” Click on it and, sadly, those mocking references from all over the country are many years old; but now there are more gags, just with new names.
Search for “the New England Patriots are a . . .” and you get “machine.” For “New York Giants,” despite their modest recent success, you get back “dynasty.” Eventually, Washington fans will internalize what search engines know. We have been pranked for 18 years; the sign on our backs says, “Kick me again.”
The times always change. The NFL is in a reputational decline; Snyder’s team just doubles down on that disrepute. Like a faithless significant other, the owner has asked for second chances — and 10th chances — for a fresh start. Each time he rewrites his version of the relationship so that he is never to blame. Long ago, his desperate plot flips, his costume-jewelry makeup baubles and his predictable prevarications became exhausted; and, once you disengaged from them, bizarre.
There’s a new narrative in town. It’s time for D.C. to meet new people, ones who treat you right. It’s a big world out there. Walk out the door. Don’t look back.