By Jason Bacaj
The institutional failures of the Washington Redskins.
Imagine you’re Andy Dufresne.
You’re chipping away for years at the rock wall of your prison. Then you’re methodically smashing that sewage pipe, busting your way toward freedom as thunder crashes and the storm outside rages on. You crawl 500 hundred yards through all sorts of muck and grime, emerging finally to soak, with open arms, in the cleansing rains of liberty.
But then you turn around, and there’s Warden Norton. Captain Hadley breaks your jaw with his baton, and you’re dragged back to the twisted hell where you’ve spent the last 20 years.
That’s a rough approximation of how it felt to be a fan of the Washington Redskins this season.
It wasn’t that 3-13 is a surprising record for this football team, or that it caught fans particularly off-guard. I’m part of a generation trained to hatewatch the ‘Skins 16 weeks out of the year. Three-win seasons don’t faze us.
Rather, what left me reeling was the so very Washington Redskins way in which that 3-13 season unfolded. It began with RGIII’s knee bending sideways in last year’s playoffs, leaving the franchise’s future little more than a crumpled mass. That final image still affects me the way I imagine old pictures of Bo Jackson affect Raiders fans. And when the 2013-14 season began, it was abundantly clear those health issues still lingered.
Everything devolved from there. The defense regressed, and special teams inspired off-color jokes. There were reports of rifts between players and coaches, coaches and the front office and the front office and itself. Revelations of nepotism and incompetence seemed like just the next natural step.
By Week Nine, it was clear the Redskins were the worst team in the league. Sure, the Houston Texans finished with the worst record. But they’re also a functioning football team with a largely talented roster that happened to be hampered by injuries. It’s a team that will turn around quickly.
The Redskins, however? They were just depressing.
Griffin, once a magnificent butterfly, spent so much time on the ground it was as if some cruel bastard plucked his wings off. Third-round lineman Josh LeRibeus showed up out of shape and didn’t make an impact, except presumably on the training table. Just a handful of players, including Pierre Garçon, Alfred Morris and Jordan Reed, look legitimate enough to deserve an NFL roster spot.
That dearth of talent has less to do with Washington’s $36 million salary cap penalty and more to do with the institutional stench emanating from the team’s front office. Last year’s encouraging signs that owner Dan Snyder and Co. would focus on evaluating talent rather than simply signing aging stars were offset by the fact that those in charge of talent evaluation had no idea how to do the job.
And it isn’t going to change.
It isn’t going to change even after last season’s NFC East championship shook ‘Skins fans from their hate-watching stupor, because this year’s collapse exposed that division title as a fluke. It’s a two-year swing that’s left me asking existential questions about my fanhood.
In this era of hard salary caps, what do we root for other than ownership styles? Players come and go, aside from a few superstars. There’s little continuity year to year. What truly defines a team is management. Fans are supporting less and less a core group of athletes and a distinct style of play and more how the franchise is run.
There is still a glimmer of hope that Griffin will fully recover and carry the team forward once more. And as Andy Dufresne wrote in a letter to Red, “Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
But are the Redskins a good thing? It’s a squad with a racist nickname that might be cursed and is run by an owner who is, by most accounts, egotistical and ignorant and driven to wring every last bit of profit out of the team.
I told my friends that if RGIII doesn’t return from this knee injury completely healthy, football will be different for me. We still don’t know for sure whether he will, but it looks like football is different for me already. Just not in the way that I thought.
Jason Bacaj is Began in ‘96’s Out West correspondent and a normally optimistic Redskins fan.