During a reality-bites week in Washington, where the Nationals were eliminated from playoff contention and the winless RG-Threesuses lost again and now have a 3.1 percent chance of competing in the postseason, a sudden clarity has emerged: As a big-time sports town, we don’t do expectations.
If a manager says “World Series or bust,” like Davey Johnson did in December, chances are the baseball team will be 15 games back in August.
If a coach says “Anything short of a Super Bowl is a failure,” like Mike Shanahan kind of did last month, chances are the football team will give up more yards than the Texas annexation and be playing for its season Week 4 at Oakland.
That’s why it was altogether alarming to hear Ted Leonsis, owner of two other major pro sports teams in town, talk up his hockey club. Referring to the Capitals’ Stanley Cup chances, Ted said, “I think the window is still wide open for us.”
More concerning, Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards’ team president, expressed genuine optimism for a squad mired in the lottery for five straight seasons. “Obviously, our initial goal is to be a playoff contender,” the Ern Dog began, “and ultimately, by the end of the year, make the playoffs.”
No, no, no.
Haven’t we learned anything from recent failures of teams who were supposed to contend? It’s not just the pros. Look at the Georgetown men’s basketball team, which for years has looked so heavenly in the Big East regular season and so hellish in the NCAA tournament.
Expectations don’t work here, people. They box everybody in. They make us forget where the outfield wall is and that the object of football while playing defense is to tackle the other player — not just give him a forearm shiver and hope he goes down.
The moment their goal becomes the postseason or winning a title, Washington athletes become prisoners of their own self-induced pressure.
Look at the Capitals. They have had Cup expectations since 2009. Four years later, they are no closer to the grail than Monty Python.
It’s time to get rid of all the old coach-’em-up cliches like “aim higher,” “pain is temporary, pride is forever” and “play with the heart of a champion.”
It’s time to stop being so optimistic and more pessimistic about our chances of holding another championship parade in this town.
Washington needs to . . . lower the bar.
Aim for the middle of the pack.
We need to dramatically alter our thinking for the simple fact that if anything spectacular does happen it will be so stupendously awesome we will be the opposite of cruelly disappointed and disillusioned.
We’ll be . . . pleasantly surprised.
Take Robert Griffin III’s rookie year. Everyone had high hopes when he was drafted, but no one saw him taking out the Saints in his debut, high-stepping down the sideline against the Vikings, changing the vibe in a heartbeat from “at least we finally got a QB” to “Lord God, Heavenly Father . . . thank you!”
Now that he is the surgically repaired quarterback of a vastly underachieving 0-3 team, we want him to be Touchdown Threesus again now, darn it!
This wasn’t Griffin’s fault, of course. I mean, an ad campaign that proclaimed “All-in as Soon as Prudently Possible” was never going to move product for Adidas.
But the moment the coach and the players started talking smack about the big game this franchise hasn’t been to in 21 seasons, boom — the town was crestfallen after the opening night loss.
That’s why, if they haven’t already, the marketing people for the Wizards and Capitals need to rethink their slogans this season so they can avoid annually not living up to the hyperbole.
A catchy phrase that doesn’t promise too much, doesn’t overexcite. For instance:
“Your 2013-2014 Washington Wizards: We’re Going to Play All 82 Games This Season.”
“Your 2013-2014 Washington Capitals: Tying Both Skates for 45 Years.”
“Wizards Basketball: Preserving Your June Beach Rentals Since 1978.”
“Capitals Hockey: We Get Out of the First Round 50 Percent of the Time.”
Bottom line: We have to accept that we work much better as an out-of-the-blue sports town than a championship-expectation town.
Things were so good in 2012 when the Nationals came from nowhere to win the NL East and Griffin piggybacked Washington to a euphoric NFC East title no one saw coming.
But then we made a grave mistake: We aimed higher. We raised the bar. We dared to dream.
And we forgot to wake up.
Better to believe the Wizards will win 25 games and the Caps will be knocked out in five games of the first round. Anything else will feel like a parade, no?
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.