Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Redskins In The 2000's: A Decade of Disappointment

TIME magazine recently published an article contending that this decade has been the worst the United States has experienced since World War II. They make their case by pointing to events such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, two market crashes, and the financial crisis. The author revisits a famous Ronald Reagan campaign quote, asking the reader “Are you better off today than you were at the beginning of the decade?” If the same question was posed to the collective Washington, D.C. sports fanbase, the reply would be an unequivocal “no.”

In fact, upon close examination, this past decade has been unprecedentedly miserable for a sports town with a tradition of winning teams. No other North American city with more than two professional sports teams, including Toronto and Vancouver, has endured such futility when it comes to playoff “success.” Not a single Washington team has made it past the second round of their respective playoffs while every other comparable city has had at least one team reach the conference final. Some cities that aren’t usually considered great sports towns have enjoyed great success in several sports. For instance, Tampa Bay appeared in the World Series in 2008 and won both the Super Bowl in 2002 and the Stanley Cup in 2004. In just the last ten years the city of Phoenix made it to the Super Bowl, the NBA Western Conference Finals in ’05 and ‘06, and won a World Series title in 2001.

In addition to playoff misfortune, Washington, D.C. sports has seen unrivaled scandal and tragedy to make matters even worse. Between the death of an owner and player and off-the-field controversies, this city has experienced a lot in the last ten years. profiles each local major professional team’s respective struggles and explains why this past decade is one to be forgotten for fans of D.C. sports.

In setting a criterion for this analysis, we exclude D.C. United’s championship and the brief triumphs of local college basketball teams. While those postseason runs left indelible memories, they pale in comparison to the impact of a title in one of the four major professional leagues. Washington, D.C. hasn’t had the privilege of uniting over a world championship in far too long and if it is to happen soon, it won’t be in this decade.

We start with the region's most prestigious team, the Redskins. In the next few days, we will examine the decade that was for the Wizards, Nationals and Capitals.

Part 1: Redskins - A False Start

This decade for Washington fans didn’t exactly get off on the right foot. Just two weeks into the millennium, on January 15, 2000, the Daniel Snyder era was one regular season in and already a participant in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. In that game the Redskins squandered a 13-0 third quarter lead against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Redskins offense was held scoreless in the second half by the account of two key turnovers. Washington was unable to stop Mike Alstott on two pivotal plays, a 2-yard touchdown run in the third quarter and a fourth down conversion late in the game. After the 4th-and-1, rookie quarterback Shaun King converted the touchdown and gave Tampa Bay a 14-13 lead. The Skins would get another chance, setting up for a 52-yard field goal for the win in the final seconds. Center Dan Turk botched the snap, floundering a Brett Conway attempt to put an end to a promising Redskins season.

Comcast SportsNet anchor Chick Hernandez vividly remembers the game and the letdown on the last play. He was standing under the goal post waiting to film a stand-up saying that Brett Conway had kicked the game-winner. With his back to the crowd he realized something had gone wrong when the Tampa crowd began to celebrate. The kick never happened, the Redskins lost and long snapper Turk was under scrutiny. Hernandez says that he “never saw a man more down after the game than Dan Turk. He didn't fly back with the team. He just walked the streets of Tampa that night.”

The next season a poor record led to the firing of head coach Norv Turner, commencing a ten year period in which the Redskins had five different head coaches. Interim coach Terry Robiskie was let go after finishing the season 1-2 and the Redskins hired Marty Schottenheimer as their 24th head coach. Schottenheimer’s team started slow in the 2001 season, losing their first five games. The team turned it around quickly and won their next five, the first team in NFL history to do so. They finished 8-8, good enough for second in the NFC East division.

Schottenheimer and the Redskins won eight out of their last eleven games but because of a clash of personalities, Daniel Snyder fired the head coach after just one season. It was the first of many controversial decisions Snyder would make during his tenure as owner of the Redskins. He was replaced with University of Florida coach Steve Spurrier. Snyder signed “The Old Ballcoach” to a five year, $25 million dollar contract, the largest coaching contract in NFL history at the time. High profile and expensive contracts in the offseason would become characteristic of Daniel Snyder’s reign.

It was Snyder’s hope that the “Fun and Gun” offense would translate to the professional game. Since Schottenheimer had struggled to get the offense going, it seemed that a more open offense would be the logical remedy. Spurrier was a popular figure at the time. He was coveted by other franchises and many believe Snyder fell victim to the hype and publicity of his jump to the NFL.

Steve Spurrier’s two years as coach of the Redskins began with a respectable 7-9 season. In his second season, Washington upset the eventual Super Bowl Champions, the New England Patriots, in week four. Overall his coaching stint was a disappointment. The Redskins finished 5-11 his second year and 12-20 overall under his lead. In his last three games the Redskins were outscored 85-31 including blow-out losses to the Eagles and Cowboys. Spurrier resigned from head coach of the Redskins on December 30, 2003, three days after the season had ended.

Spurrier’s successor would be the greatest coach in Washington, D.C. sports history. Joe Gibbs came out of retirement in 2004 to give head coaching in the NFL another shot. His hiring brought optimism to a franchise that had only made the playoffs once since his first retirement. The reaction from the fanbase quickly became what Comcast SportsNet anchor Russ Thaler describes as “a combination of shock and hysteria.” Gibbs’ return to the Redskins sidelines signaled the second coming of the franchise’s most iconic figure; he was quickly viewed as a potential savior from the plight that was still lingering from Norv Turner’s coaching years.

Though his second time around wasn’t nearly as decadent as the first, coach Gibbs did lead the team into the playoffs twice in four years. Those two playoff appearances are the best finishes a Redskins coach has achieved since Gibbs first left the game in 1992. In fact, he is the only Redskins coach of this decade to take the Redskins to the postseason.

Perhaps the best accomplishment of Gibbs’ second enlistment was the playoff berth in 2007. This was, of course, in light of the death of star safety Sean Taylor. Taylor’s passing shocked the Washington area and the nation alike. A fan favorite, Taylor was in the midst of his best season, establishing himself as one of the best defensive backs in the league. He was 24 years old and starting to become a true superstar. His pairing with fellow top pick LaRon Landry created a great safety tandem that would set the tone for the Redskins defense for a decade.

Chick Hernandez on Taylor’s passing:

“That along with the death of Len Bias are the two worst stories I've had to cover. With Taylor I remember going to bed one night thinking he would be alright because the reports said he squeezed the hand of the nurse that night and was coming out of it, when I woke up in the morning he was dead.”

“The look on the faces of the players still haunts me. I remember the blank sadness, the gray day that it was in every way. The strength of Sean's father Pete will stay with me forever. I said then, and believe it still, this team will not be the same until every one of Sean's teammates is no longer a Redskin. His death continues to have ramifications on the field.”

Taylor’s death left an entire fanbase grieving the loss of a player who thrilled many with his abilities and passion for the game. His life tragically ended at a young age, leaving fans to dream of “what if” and a daughter to grow up without her father. In the midst of this unfortunate event, coach Gibbs was able to rally a grief-stricken team and take them to the playoffs. Since that emotional winning streak, however, reasons to celebrate have been few and far between.

Shortly after that impressive run Joe Gibbs decided it was time to retire again. The Redskins brass spent a month searching for the next head coach, eventually settling on Seattle Seahawks quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn. It was a surprising move considering that they had to first dismiss the fan-favorite “coach-in-waiting,” Gregg Williams. After moving on from Williams they hired Zorn as their offensive coordinator, before they had put a head coach in place. It was a confounding process that left the Skins with an undesirable head coaching vacancy. Their decision to then elect Zorn as head coach was a promotion that Jim Zorn himself even called “miraculous” in his introductory press conference. Zorn also said to the media that day that he was excited to represent the Redskins colors of “Maroon and Black.”

Despite much criticism of the decision and its timing, the Redskins were able to get out to a strong 6-2 start in coach Zorn’s first season, before reversing that mark in the second half and limping to an 8-8 finish. Since the midway mark of last season the Redskins are a miserable 6-16.

The anguish of a once proud franchise and its fans has been exacerbated by a ticket lawsuit scandal and this season’s inordinate amount of injuries. The Redskins currently hold nine players on Injured Reserve. While all of the injuries are significant, the losses of Clinton Portis and Chris Samuels are by far the most impactful. A concussion suffered against the Falcons ended Portis’ season and maybe his career as a Redskin. Portis has been one of the best running backs in franchise history and is currently ranked second on the Redskins all-time rushing leaders list. If he is indeed finished in Washington, his presence on and off the field will be tough to replace.

A severe neck injury has not only ended Chris Samuels’ season but probably his career as well. Drafting Chris Samuels in 2000 is one of the most notable accomplishments of the Daniel Snyder era. He has been the leader of the Redskins offensive line for the entirety of the decade, playing in 141 games in ten seasons. He also did not miss a start from 2004 through the 2007 season.

Comcast SportsNet managing editor Joe Yasharoff explains the loss of Chris Samuels as “devastating,” that he is the “type of player you expect to anchor your offensive line for another five, six, or seven years.” No other Redskins player has been as durable and consistent as Samuels in the past ten years. An anomaly on a team in which change has been an expected constant, Chris Samuels has been depended on and has delivered every year he has been in the league. In ten seasons Samuels has played for four head coaches and blocked for thirteen quarterbacks, but has only been to the playoffs two times.

The Redskins’ struggles in the last two years have been a microcosm for the team’s torment this decade. After a terrific start the team looked poised for a renaissance. What has transpired has been disappointment after disappointment. They currently sit at last place in the NFC East and will not be playing in the playoffs this year. As the Redskins play the rest of this season for pride, they will once again have a long offseason to muse about the draft and hopes for next year. The Redskins recently appointed Bruce Allen as their General Manager and are beginning to interview for the next head coach.

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