From Josh Norman’s perspective, from any Washington Redskin’s perspective, I get it. It’s not fun to work all week, to build toward Sunday and ball out — and then be booed by your own fans for a single misstep. These football players, these professionals, as running back Chris Thompson told reporters Monday, “want our fans to be out there and just have our backs.”
For a member of the 2018 Washington team, that’s simple and reasonable and seems like the bare minimum to ask from a paying customer. Those players lead the NFC East by two games. Each of the last seven weeks of the season will have playoff implications. The on-field product may not exactly be the most aesthetically appealing, but for a franchise that has a grand total of one playoff victory since the 2000 season, playing relevant football over the holidays sure beats the all too familiar alternative.
Plus, this isn’t Albert Haynesworth being booed. These players clearly care.
But the atmosphere Norman addressed following Sunday’s win in Tampa — completely unsolicited, it’s worth noting — is one of the defining elements of this franchise at the moment. It’s too bad for the current players, who are working diligently to try to deliver a division championship.
Still, it’s a fact of life here: Unwittingly, those players are burdened by the sins of the past, by the misdeeds of others. They’re burdened by Dan Wilkinson and Jim Zorn, by Vinny Cerrato and the FedEx Field experience, by the Robert Griffin III-Mike Shanahan back-stabbing, by all of the unnecessary and self-inflicted drama that has defined this organization for a generation.
Most of all, they’re burdened by Daniel M. Snyder.
There’s no scientific means of figuring out the motivations of 80,000 individuals — or, more frequently this year, 60,000 individuals — for booing or cheering, standing or sitting, jeering or cajoling. But I’ve talked to enough friends and fans and fans who are friends, and a common theme emerges: The frustration with Washington’s ownership and administration — and with Snyder in particular — has become the defining aspect of this franchise.
There’s no subject on any particular area of any particular Washington team — Alex Smith vs. Kirk Cousins, Jay Gruden as a play caller, Scot McCloughan and the draft, issues both massive and tiny — in which at least one reader won’t chime in with some version of, “You know, the real problem is Snyder.” The most strident among them write that they won’t go to a game unless and until Snyder sells the team.
Given that Snyder doesn’t march to midfield before the coin toss and invite the fans to react to his mere presence, all that frustration has to come out somewhere. So when the offense goes three-and-out on back-to-back possessions, or the defense allows the opponent to convert on third and 20, the crowd might boo the players who collectively failed in those situations, sure. But the boos come more readily and have more snarl behind them because of all the dissatisfaction built up over Snyder’s ownership, which is now in its 20th season.
More than the booing, though: The fans are now protesting in the most effective way possible — not showing up — and the players can’t help but notice. Through five home games, Washington has averaged 61,201 fans, which, according to data compiled by ESPN, ranks 26th in a 32-team league. The myths of the sellout streak and the season ticket waiting list are gone, but the fact that the organization lied about both remains. For so many fans, the anger toward ownership trumps the love for an individual player or, collectively, this year’s team. Norman doesn’t have to understand that, but it’s real.
What Norman complained about, though, is something visceral and impactful for the guys who pull on these jerseys and don’t know about, say, the embarrassment of “The Swinging Gate.” When these players sit down in meeting rooms this week, they’ll be studying the Houston Texans, and that’s all that should matter. They don’t need to brush up on the fact that the franchise for which they work once plucked a coach whose most recent job was “volunteer bingo caller” and asked him to call plays a week later.
No, all Norman knows is what he sees. To review his comments, which followed a simple question about why Washington is now 3-1 on the road:
“We go into the homestands, and it’s like an open bubble,” Norman said. “Like the other team’s turf or something. You hear more of them than you do us. Then if something bad happens, they suck. They sit back in their seat, and they boo.”
He’s not wrong. The home environment right now is not the stuff of players’ dreams. According to the ESPN attendance data, Washington has played to 74.6 percent of FedEx Field’s capacity this season. That may not, technically, be half-empty. But it’s ranking in the NFL this year: dead last.
Throw in the normal number of fans who are pulling for the other team (a phenomenon that’s not unique to Washington, by the way), and it makes it hard for Norman’s teammates to disagree with him.
“Feel like he not lying at all,” tweeted linebacker Zach Brown.
“Home games, that’s some of the worst things I’ve seen,” safety D.J. Swearinger said during his weekly appearance with Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier on 106.7 The Fan.
The problem, though, is that neither side is wrong. It’s hard to ask the current players to absolve the fans who have given up on the franchise just as those players have produced its best record through nine games in a decade. It’s hard to ask them to just shrug their shoulders at the fans who do show up and jeer at the slightest failure.
But I’d argue it’s harder to ask the fans who have endured so much nonsense over such a long period of time to blindly and happily support a franchise that has burned them with such regularity over a quarter of a century. If you’ve invested — emotionally, financially and with time — and the result has been three 10-win seasons in the past 26 years, well, then, it’s hard to be all, “Better luck next time, guys!”
Norman, Swearinger and Brown didn’t cause the pain in the past. It’s not their fault the fan base wishes the team played in a different stadium in a different location. It’s not their fault their team signed Haynesworth to a $100 million contract — and the free agent defensive tackle, quite literally, laid down — or that the owner charged for training camp attendance oh so long ago.
What Norman and Swearinger and Brown are responsible for: their own performances. More times than not this season, that has been good enough. Winning makes this better. Not just this year, but over time. The wounds here are deep.
The current players need to realize this, too: Behind the boos and the empty seats, this fan base still loves this team. The players are the only people who — play by play, game by game, year after year — can funnel that love into fans who fill the stands, and whose default mode is to belt out “Hail to the Redskins” with a few more decibels, not to cynically roll their eyes and yell out, “Not again.”
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.