As they have every summer, Washington Redskins fans descended upon their team’s preseason games last month in a flood of burgundy and white jerseys, each bearing the name and number of a favorite player. This has always served as an unofficial referendum on the fame of each season’s team, a silent vote on who stands as most beloved on the current roster.
But something seemed odd about the jerseys at the Redskins’ final three games of the summer. Nearly all of the names stitched or embossed across their backs were of men who are no longer Redskins.
There were jerseys for Chris Cooley, for Clinton Portis, for Brian Orakpo and, of course, the late Sean Taylor. There were jerseys with Kirk Cousins’s No. 8 despite the fact Cousins is the quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings. There were also jerseys with Robert Griffin III’s name on the back even though Griffin’s final months in Washington were nothing short of a football disaster.
And yet aside from a spattering of No. 17 jerseys — a salute to former star and current senior vice president of player personnel Doug Williams — and a handful of shirts bearing the 91 of linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, the current team is not represented on the backs of its fans. It’s as if Washington’s football fans literally are refusing to buy into these Redskins, who start their season Sunday afternoon in Arizona. The personal connection between the Redskins players and their base has eroded.
“I normally follow the team, but I have no idea who these players are,” said 64-year-old Calvin Lewis of Chesapeake, Va., who was wearing a white Portis jersey during a preseason game at FedEx Field two weeks ago. “Other than Adrian Peterson and Alex Smith, I don’t think I can name another guy on the team.”
The broken bonds are not easy to define. Many of the fans in former players’ jerseys raised old complaints about owner Daniel Snyder and grumbled about a two-decade run that has brought just four postseason appearances.
But fans have long growled about ownership. Until recently, their dissatisfaction never sliced their connection with the men on the field. If anything, their unwillingness to invest in their team’s players is a frustration with recent mediocrity and a bigger lack of familiarity with the actual players themselves.
“I don’t want to spend $120 on a jersey if the guy is going to be traded next year,” said Andrew Moore, a 43-year-old contractor from Arlington who grew up going to Redskins games at RFK Stadium and refuses to replace his aging Cooley shirt. “These guys now, what are we expecting from them? An 8-8 season? I’m not electrified.”
Coach Jay Gruden understands. When asked the other day whether he thought his team is “under the radar,” he nodded and then said, “Probably.”
“But that’s where we should be really,” he added. “You know what? We were 7-9 last year and 1-5 in our division. There’s no reason we should be on the radar. It’s our job to put ourselves on the radar.”
Part of this fan detachment might come from a modified approach to team-building. Aside from Peterson, a future Hall of Famer signed late in camp after two injury-marred years, the locker room is not filled with highly paid superstars with big personalities. The team’s best player, Trent Williams, is an offensive tackle who carries himself as an everyman (despite his fleet of expensive cars). The quarterback, Smith, was acquired eight months ago and is more adept at deflecting attention than at attracting it. Even cornerback Josh Norman, famous for his blowups with New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., has been more reserved since coming to Washington from Carolina.
Redskins fans long derided how an open checkbook hijacked the team’s roster, particularly when it didn’t work, but without high-profile stars or long-tenured skill-position players, the internal cohesion in Ashburn is hard to see from the outside. From afar, the Redskins seem like faceless blobs wearing burgundy helmets with gold face masks.
“Chris Cooley was intense in the way he played,” said 48-year-old Dale Wolf, from Dauphin, Pa., as he touched his home jersey with Cooley’s 47 on the front before the Redskins’ last preseason game in Baltimore. “Just his demeanor, the way he was. And he stayed. He didn’t leave.”
“There are no players on this team for fans to get behind,” said 25-year-old Jesse Orr, fingering his own well-worn Cooley jersey. He got the shirt when he was 12, a child living in Fairfax who thought that early 2000s group of Redskins were perfect. As an adult, he shrugs, he hasn’t considered buying a new jersey. If he did, who would it be? He doesn’t know.
“Maybe if they start winning . . .” he said.
Yes. Winning. Perhaps a perennial playoff contender would see more of Williams’s 71 and Norman’s 24 and maybe a few hopeful 95s for top draft pick Daron Payne in the stands. But a 7-9 campaign last year — after going 8-7-1, 9-7, 4-12 and 3-13 in the previous four seasons — along with the lack of big names has settled Redskins fans into a malaise.
“I think over the years we have missed those opportunities which have resulted in our bad seasons to where we say, ‘Okay, the Redskins talent-wise have a really good team, but will they be able to put it together?’ ” running back Chris Thompson said. “That’s how everybody’s probably looking at it.”
The Redskins start a new season this week, yet their fans are resisting the most tangible investment they could make. No Redskins player is on the list of top 25 NFL jersey sales, this despite a $94 million quarterback and a future Hall of Fame running back. The collective response appears to be nostalgia for the past and a yawn about the present.
It’s a sentiment perhaps best summed up by Moore, the 43-year-old with his cherished Cooley jersey who is “not electrified” by 8-8.
“If they win, I’ll be right back on the bandwagon, but if they don’t . . .” he said, leaving the thought hanging for a moment, “I guess that’s the kind of fan I am at this point.”
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