Monday, December 21, 2009

Checking in with the Redskins: In the Beginning

The Commish called yesterday to firm up our New Year's plans. The subject of this week's Monday Night Football game also came up. The Commish is a die-hard New York Giants fan and this week, they're playing my team: the Washington Redskins. He actually expressed greater faith in my side than I felt. As I write this, the Skins are being mercilessly pounded, certain to keep the Giants' playoff hopes alive.

Before tennis and even basketball, my sports interest began with professional football. To say that the Skins are a big deal in the DC area is putting it mildly. In perhaps the world's most contentious city, love for the Skins is the best hope for consensus. When I was 9 years old, the team shrugged off years of mediocrity and followed the great Joe Gibbs in only his second season as an NFL head coach to win the franchise's first Super Bowl. I was hooked for years afterward, never missing a game if I could help it.

Two more titles would come during Gibbs's first reign. His genius was manifold but his main contributions to the pro game were in the run offense. Gibbs favored a single-back set, allowing for an extra tight end on the offensive line. His plays and blocking schemes have become essential to the arsenal of any rush-heavy NFL offense. But perhaps even more extraordinary than his chalkboard work was his ability to win despite an ever-changing roster. He won his three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks and three different halfbacks. There were plenty of changes on defense and in the receiver corps as well. One thing remained constant. For 11 years, the Redskins had the best offensive line in football - perhaps the best the NFL has ever seen. When the Hogs were on their game, the Skins were unstoppable. Gibbs could put whomever he wanted in the backfield and still win. The results speak for themselves. And yet, none from that unit has made it to the Hall of Fame - criminal!

Just as my basketball sensibilities were formed by the Hoyas of the '80s, so too were my football concepts shaped by Gibbs. I worshiped the man. The whole city did. We were excused from school for the victory parade after they won in '88. I stood ankle-deep in a fountain on a ridiculously cold day just to catch a glimpse of the conquering heroes along with half a million fellow fans.

I liked Gibbs almost enough to care about NASCAR when he switched sports in the '90s. The organization hasn't been the same since his initial retirement in 1993. My interest quickly waned as well. The fact that I'd gone to college in another part of the country didn't help.

In May of 1999, the team was bought by Daniel Snyder for $800 million, at the time, the most ever paid for a sports franchise. While his pockets are plenty deep, Snyder has been a notorious micro-manager, running a long string of big-name head coaches out of town, including Gibbs himself in a return engagement. Always willing to shell out money for free agents rather than build a talent base over time, the Redskins never seem to fulfill their promise in a given season. What was once the organization's greatest strength has become a liability: a patchwork offensive line which can't protect QB Jason Campbell to save its life.

But this is the NFL and perhaps the league's greatest strength is the reasonable belief that a bad team will come around someday. As I have written previously, the NFL, with its Any Given Sunday philosophy, preserves parity better than any other American sports league. Every franchise has its ups and downs. Even Snyder can't hold the Skins down forever. He hired a new general manager this past week, the first person to hold the position during Snyder's tenure. He's a Redskins legacy: Bruce Allen, son of George Allen, the Redskins' coaching hero of the early '70s. Current head coach Jim Zorn is surely on his way out so there will be a fresh start there as well. One hopes that Snyder can learn from the George Steinbrenners of the world that meddling less might actually produce a happier and more effective organization. Plus, this year's miserable record will mean a decent draft position. Win or lose, the Redskins are one of the most powerful brands in sports. They've broken the NFL attendance record for eight years running. So, there is hope.

But not tonight. Game over. Giants win, 45-12. The Commish is surely happy.

Now, if we could please do something about the name of the team...

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