What's funny is that I went into this year fully prepared for us to underperform expectations. You know what they say--Washington Redskins, offseason champs. I've never fully been able to drink that Kool-Aid, and at this point I'm less able to than ever, but the fact that our big offseason acquisition this year was mighty young QB Robert Griffin III definitely made me happy. There's a semi-official Redskins blog I read that is part of a for-profit sports blogging site; it gets updated something like 6 times a day and the writers are clearly getting paid to come up with shit to write about. On that site they will frequently devote posts to the kind of trumped-up teapot tempests that fandoms work themselves into tizzies about at least once a month; no potential doomsaying talking point, no matter how ridiculous and Chicken-Little-sky-is-falling absurd and over the top it is, is unworthy of a poll post that generates a 250 comment war in which people argue for days over some shit that they'll know the answer to definitively one way or the other in three or four months AT MOST. I bring all this up because that particular blog devoted not one but several posts to whether or not the Redskins were fucking up by trading two first-round picks and a second-rounder for the opportunity to pick RG3. Like I said, I'm no offseason-champ Kool-Aid drinker; my bullshit detector is ridiculously sensitive to dubious machinations coming from the Snyder front office (yeah, I know, Cerrato's gone and he's giving Bruce Allen and the Shanaplan a lot more room to maneuver than he used to with his little sidekick Vinny, but I still don't trust that shit). And yet, I saw a couple of Baylor games last year, and a lot of highlights from other games RG3 played in. I knew this dude was THE REAL DEAL. Meanwhile, I also saw--well, mostly listened on radio to--the majority of the Redskins games that were played in 2011. I know what we were getting from Rex Grossman. This isn't 1965, motherfuckers--you can't win a Super Bowl, or even grab a wildcard slot in the playoffs anymore, without a good QB. Grossman was about 1/4 good QB, 3/4 terminal fuckup. Ol' Gunslinger Eyes, as Raven calls him (appropriately, in my opinion), was never going to bring us a winning season. We needed a franchise QB. Griffin's the surest thing I've seen coming out of college in years. Why the fuck wouldn't we shell out for him? Yeah, the price was high, but we were gonna have to spend it sooner or later. Fuck, Seattle paid just as much (in a different fashion, but still) to trade for Matt Flynn, and look how that turned out. RG3 was a much surer bet, all things considered.
Still though, no matter how much I liked Griffin, I knew that the best we could really expect out of him was what Cam Newton did for the Panthers in 2011--rack up mad stats and take a 2-win team up to a 6-win team. There are so many other problems for the Redskins right now that we're not going to solve them in one or three or maybe even five years. The damage done to the longterm health of our team's roster, coaching staff, and general morale by a decade of the Snyder/Cerrato front office running roughshod over the legacy of Jack Kent Cooke and Joe Gibbs can't be overstated. No matter what sort of ticket-sale ad campaign gets cooked up during one offseason or another, the pieces are not in place and we're not "this close" to having a playoff-caliber team or even a winning season. Shit is shitty, and it'll take more than RG3 to turn it around. Maybe he'll make a difference in three years, when he's had time to develop and the rest of the team has been built around him. And that's a big maybe--it'll depend on a lot of other smart moves being made, and god knows we've learned as Redskins fans of the 21st century that smart moves can't be counted on from our team. My point is that I went into week 1 steadfastly refusing to have hope for an actual good Redskins team. I expected flashes of brilliance from a hot young quarterback who'd also probably have moments of crashing-burning instability and failure. I figured we could win 8 games this year, MAX, but anything more than that wasn't even worth contemplating. And I knew, deep in my heart of hearts, that we would lose our opening game against the Saints.
So on week one, sitting on my best friend's couch waiting for the first game of the season to start, I had no hope at all. I had already written the game off in my mind. You can guess the next part--I was blown away by how the first half of that game went. The Redskins were suddenly able to score. There was a vertical passing attack in place. We seemed to have a game plan capable of stopping (or at least containing--yes, Chris Berman, I know) Drew Brees. Craziest of all, out of nowhere we'd ended up with a 6th round draft pick RB who was tearing shit up on the ground. I had expected some amount of improvement in the passing game, but an actual running game showing up with some consistency? That seemed totally beyond the pale. At certain moments during the game, the improvements already present in the passing game would show up with crystalline clarity--on third down, RG3 getting chased out of the pocket and suddenly hitting Fred Davis on the sidelines, 30 yards down the field, with a goddamn laserbeam of a pass. A busted play on fourth down resulting in RG3 heaving the ball at the end zone; Aldrick Robinson didn't catch it, but he drew the DPI and we got first and goal on the one. I know that most of what made the first 88-yard TD to Garcon was Garcon's yards after catch, but I can't ignore the fact that the second the ball left RG3's hands, it was obviously the sort of pass that Grossman couldn't have completed. If Garcon had been tackled the second he caught it, he'd have had first down yardage and more. That's not insignificant.
By the end of the third quarter, hope was sneaking into my heart. I mean, how could it not? The Redskins were up 30-14 at one point during that quarter, and it seemed like the Saints were bested. But there's a saying I picked up somewhere, I believe from the title of a 90s-era hardcore album (count on hardcore bands for a solid dose of cynicism anytime you're lacking in it): "Hope is the first stage of defeat." When I had no hope, I had nothing to lose. I could watch the Redskins blow the game with no feeling of betrayal, because I hadn't expected them to do any better. Once expectations started forming in my mind, the idea that we might not win the game started to matter to me. My Zen-master calm floated away; my ability to avoid drinking the Kool-Aid and admit that we were still probably gonna be kind of bad at least for another year or so was in jeopardy. Instead, I was back to a position I've been in many times as a fan of the Redskins over the years--on the edge of my seat, panicking that we might be throwing away yet another winnable game in the final quarter. Fortunately that didn't happen--good ol' deaf safety Reed Doughty took care of Brees's attempted Hail Mary and we escaped with a victory. But it was something that came into question for a while.
Since then, a lot of things have come out in the wash. The Saints, who still haven't won a game, are clearly not the team they've been for the past five years with Sean Payton as their coach. A lot of shitty teams have scored a win on them while continuing to be shitty in other games against other teams. At the beginning of the year, a lot of people took the fact that the Redskins beat the Saints as prima facie evidence that we weren't shitty. Considering that that's now a distinction that we share with the Kansas City Chiefs, I don't think it counts us out of potential shittiness by any means. But fortunately, whether or not we're shitty hasn't been definitively proven by one or even four games. With a record of 2-2, the jury is still out. And yet, we've started 3-2 something like 6 times since 2000. Last year we started 3-2, and we finished 5-11. I've stopped being impressed by it. A strong start is not a guarantee of strength down the stretch. What always seems to happen is that injuries quickly pile up, and we don't have the depth to fill the holes. I'm not sure whether Trent Williams will be healthy this week or not, but even if he makes it back into the lineup and saves us from the dynamic duo of certain doom that would be the tackle tandem of Jordan Black and Tyler Polumbus, we know we're stuck with at least Polumbus because Jammal Brown is so done that he didn't even make it through preseason. On the defensive side of the ball, Orakpo and Carriker are done for the year, which represents one and possibly two crippling blows to our defensive front seven. This team, not that solid in a lot of areas to begin with, is crumbling quickly. It's nothing we haven't seen before, but that doesn't make it any easier to watch.
And yet, there are also differences in the 2012 Washington Redskins from the team I've seen in past years. The primary difference is that they're now good enough to have a pretty strong start most of the time and stay in the game throughout. However, they're still bad enough that they can't ever really slam the door shut on any team, so that even a game that features a commanding lead is still in danger right up to the very last play. Look at the St. Louis game. We can talk about bad scab officiating all we want, or stupid decisions at the very end (Josh Morgan letting Cortland Finnegan goad him into an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, Shanahan sending Billy Cundiff out to attempt a field goal he couldn't make on his best day), but what really took that game away from us was the same thing that nearly lost us the Tampa Bay game and led Cincinnati to spend most of that game lighting us up--the secondary sucks, and so does the offensive line. When we first get out onto the field, raw talent from players like RG3 and Alfred Morris on the offensive side of the ball, or Ryan Kerrigan and London Fletcher on the defensive side, prevents players from exposing our weaknesses early on. But by halftime the coaches have us figured out, and then teams come out in the second half and start wiping the floor with us. There's always a point in the game when you can see the tide starting to roll back--the end of the third quarter in Tampa, when the Bucs suddenly started two straight drives with 50 yard passes to Vincent Jackson, setting up two straight unanswered touchdowns which combined with the go-ahead field goal to make for what has generally been a sure loss for recent Redskins teams. Fortunately, RG3 adds real on-field expertise to his raw talent, and was able to pull off a final two-minute hurry-up drive, even with a malfunctioning headset, get us down the field and into field goal range. Billy Cundiff is another flaw in the ointment--my kingdom for a kicker who doesn't fucking suck. Oh Mark Moseley, hero of my youth, where are you now?--but he pulled out the pseudo-clutch 41 yard kick after missing from that distance AND from 10 yards closer earlier in the game and we escaped with that win too. That's not something we would have seen from Rex Grossman--last year that game would have ended with four incomplete passes and the Bucs taking however many knees they needed to end the game. So yeah, improvement in some areas, stagnation in others. This team still has a long way to go.
So what's gonna happen in the next Redskins game, the one that kicks off less than 12 hours from now as I type this? Nothing good, I'm afraid. The Atlanta Falcons have been good for a while, but they're really fucking awesome right now--Roddy White is a beast, Matt Ryan to Julio Jones is a great combo, their running backs are consistently gaining yardage and their defense is firing on all cylinders. It looks like they'll really make it happen this year, and I just don't think we've got a prayer in that kind of situation. RG3 is gonna put up some serious fantasy points--or at least I hope so, he's my starting QB in one of my fantasy leagues--but in all likelihood it'll be in a losing effort. If we're gonna get blown out so bad that we can't even hang in a game this year, this will be one of the ones in which it happens. Then again, who knows? I would have said a lot of the same things about the Saints in week one. Ultimately, I'll be sitting on the couch at a friend's house with pizza and Coke Zero in hand, watching attentively and dreading the inevitable nail-biting finish.
I'm not sure what it will ultimately take for the Redskins to clear the decks of the bad karma and psychic debt that they've built up over the past decade-plus of poor personnel decisions and money-driven attempts to grab at the quick-fix brass ring instead of doing things right and truly building a team. I'm sure it will require some more time in the trenches than we've put in so far. How many more slipshod losing seasons and depthless, spottily assembled collections of rejects from around the league who are on their fifth team in seven years will we have to suffer through before the good players come to DC and stay, and the bad players get shuffled on to some other hopeless team populated by rejects from the NFL's better half? I have no idea, but I've long since stopped believing in the quick fix. We still have some suffering ahead of us. The day may come when we as a team and a fanbase finally wander out of the wilderness and reclaim our place as a perennial NFL power, in the spirit of Sammy Baugh and John Riggins and all the other spirit warriors who have worn Redskins jerseys over the years. And on that day, we may see Robert Griffin III and Barack Obama link arms with the ghost of Sam Cooke and lead the entire stadium in a powerful, uplifting version of "A Change Is Gonna Come" as fighter jets fly over Jack Kent Cooke Stadium and fireworks explode in the night sky as vanquished Cowboys players cry bitter tears of foiled defeat. And on that day, I will finally believe that our long national nightmare has ended, and that the healing process can truly begin.
But I don't believe it'll happen this year. And it's definitely not happening tomorrow at FedEx Field, against one of the best teams in the league, in a bought-and-paid-for corporate annex of a stadium where we haven't won a game in 13 months. I'd love to tell you it will, but I respect y'all too much to lie.