The Washington Redskins have the week off, and this is bad news for many football fans. The ’Skins are losing, and looking like genuine losers when they do it, which gives millions whose hearts are in the heartland a sense of nearly lascivious pleasure. We’d like to see more of it; can’t, in fact, get enough of it. We loved it, weekend-before-last, when the Redskins were whipped at home by the Tennessee Titans — one of the league’s weaker teams — and their rookie quarterback, Vince Young. Then, last Sunday, the Redskins went to Indianapolis to play the Colts. The ’Skins came on angry, trying to put the Colts’ quarterback, Peyton Manning, out with hard tackles, and, at the half, they were up by a point. In the 3rd quarter, Manning led the Colts on three flawless touchdown drives while the Redskins played petulant and picked up a couple of penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct. One was for a childish end-zone celebration. The other came when a kicker took his helmet off — a serious no-no — to bark at an official.
Indianapolis, meanwhile, kept it cool and professional and took care of the hapless ’Skins like a hangman putting in a good day’s work.
Any Redskins’ loss is good news, but this defeat was especially sweet in a symbolic sort of way. The team from the Imperial City taken down by a crew from the most mid of mid-western cities. You could almost look at it as a squad of 4-H kids kicking the tar out of a bunch of K-Street studs. This was nearly as good as a true taxpayer revolt.
The Redskins are a vital component of Washington life, a crucial element in the city’s culture of power and status and self-regard, that Sally Quinn universe where not getting invited to some swell Georgetown dinner party breeds black despair. The Redskins these days are the perfect Washington institution. Long on arrogance and short on results, bloated with money and lean on competence, full of self-importance and incapable of delivering when it comes to the basics. The Redskins block and tackle about as well as the State Department handles the North Koreans or congress deals with illegal immigration.
They’ve got a fight song, though. “Hail to the Redskins.” There is something wrong when people in any world capital — especially one in a nominal democracy — start using the word “hail” in any context. Unless, that is, you are talking about trying to find a taxi, which, in Washington, is always a neat trick, and when you do find one, you will be confronted with a fare scheme that is almost as Byzantine as the latest addition to the IRS code.
The Redskins are currently the plaything of a man named Daniel Snyder, who has a lot of money and seems to believe that the way to success is through ever more lavish spending of it. Snyder throws money around like Senators earmarking a transportation bill. Since taking over the team in 1999, he has been through five head coaches. He fired the guy who was there when he acquired the Redskins and replaced him with a popular assistant. That didn’t work out, so he went out and bought himself a highly regarded professional coach who was unable to get the Redskins to the playoffs. So Snyder trolled his wallet in front of the hottest college coach in the land. Steve Spurrier had been an offensive genius at Florida but wasn’t too sharp on what defenses did. No problem — Snyder simply brought in the most celebrated defensive coordinator in the National Football League, Marvin Lewis, and paid him more than most head coaches earn. Between Spurrier and Lewis, Snyder was laying out almost enough to fund the No Child Left Behind Act. The results were not much better. Spurrier quit after two lackluster seasons. Lewis went on to a head-coaching job at Cincinnati, which is doing better than the Redskins — but, then, just about everybody is doing better than the Redskins.
After Spurrier left, Snyder dug really deep and scored what everyone in Washington thought was a great coup. He brought Joe Gibbs back. Gibbs had coached the Redskins in their glory years, going to four Super Bowls and winning three of them, each with a different quarterback, a testament to his coaching genius. Gibbs had been out of football for a decade, taking his monastic work habits and his obsession with winning to NASCAR, and he was doing fine at places like Daytona and Bristol. But when Snyder offered him a chance to lead the Redskins back to glory, he couldn’t refuse. Maybe it was the challenge. His old rivals Bill Parcells of the Giants and Dick Vermeil of the Eagles had come out of retirement and won with new teams. Or maybe he was just tired of watching cars go around in circles when they weren’t banging into each other. Then, again, it could have been the money — $25 million for five years.
Snyder, who had already made a reputation for showering cash on over-the-hill players like Bruce Smith and Deion Sanders, was unable simply to buy every all-pro in cleats. At some point, even the most profligate owner bumps up against the NFL’s salary cap rules. So Snyder paid big bucks for assistant coaches, including Al Saunders, offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs. Saunders is said to have created a playbook that is 700 pages long — almost as thick, that is, as the OSHA manual on proper placement of port-o-potties at construction sites. Snyder is paying Saunders more than $2 million a year for three years. So far this season, the Redskins have scored 140 points. Snyder, then, is getting about as much for his money as those Indian tribes got for all that cash they dumped on Jack Abramoff.
Three years into the second Gibbs reign, the Redskins are 24-33, including the playoffs. Many cheaper, younger, more obscure coaches have taken less gaudy franchises to better records during this time.
Following his unerring instinct for paying too much for damaged or oversold goods, Snyder recently paid Tom Cruise $200 million for unspecified future projects. Cruise sat with a glum Snyder in his private box during one Redskins’ loss.
At 2-5, the Redskins are longshots, at best, to make the playoffs this year. This will not stop the fans from singing “Hail to the Redskins” after the home team scores a (rare) touchdown or from wearing wretched dresses and pig masks to show solidarity with the legendary offensive lines — known as “the hogs” — from the glory years. The owner, back then, was Jack Kent Cooke, who at least played the Washington game with the panache of a winner. Media types and power brokers coveted an invitation to watch a game with Cooke from his private box the way campaign donors once craved a Clinton offer to spend a night in the Lincoln bedroom. Cooke was a rogue, but he was a winner, and even if you lusted for a Redskins’ loss, and were frustrated by their success, you could at least reason that the extravagance and arrogance were validated by the success.
These days, one suspects and fears that the Redskins are the football equivalent of the Transportation Security Agency. Overpaid, badly managed, and utterly incompetent. Losing becomes them.
— Geoffrey Norman writes for NRO and other publications.