Any Sense of Stability Is Always Sacrificed
It’s December now, and that means Washington fans know their way home from here. As another football season in the nation’s capital dissolves amid a state of disarray, dysfunction and every-man-for-himself syndrome, the descent feels so familiar: meaningless games attended by disenchanted fans bearing almost worthless tickets as they watch a team that long ago gave any hope of competing, let alone winning.
It’s all happening yet again, and while the names and faces change from year to year, the results never do. Not for long at least.
This season’s episodes of Washington’s annual melodrama have centered on quarterback Robert Griffin III’s ill fit with rookie head coach Jay Gruden; the fool’s gold choice between backups Colt McCoy and Kirk Cousins; the sorry spectacle of Griffin’s weak standing in his own locker room; and even a cameo return to the scene by retired linebacker London Fletcher, who saw fit to level a score-settling blindside hit to the reputation of defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. And Fletcher didn’t even draw a flag for unnecessary roughness.
But don’t get distracted by merely the latest wave of failures and controversies. That’s missing the big picture. At some point they all just blend together and add to the perception that we are watching the most misguided and dysfunctional franchise in professional sports do its thing. Only when you step back and view the franchise in its totality can you fully appreciate the utter on-field disaster that has been Daniel Snyder’s ownership era.
Only owner Daniel Snyder is a constant, and he’s the one principal character in this mess who’s not going anywhere.
Snyder has remained largely silent this season, his 16th in charge, but his track record continues to speak volumes in regards to his leadership. To wit:
- At 3-10 this season, Washington has clinched the eighth double-digit loss record in Snyder’s tenure, and its fifth in the past six years. Washington is just 6-23 over the last two seasons, tied with Oakland, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville for the worst record in the NFL over that span. If you include the 2012 season’s first-round home playoff loss to Seattle, the game that changed everything for Griffin and then-head coach Mike Shanahan, Snyder’s team is a league-worst 6-24 (.200) since the calendar flipped to 2013.
- Since Snyder arrived in 1999, Washington has enjoyed just four winning seasons, four playoff berths, two division titles and a 2-4 playoff record. Washington has never had consecutive winning seasons in the Snyder era, never won more than 10 games, and never reached an NFC title game. From 2009 on, Washington is 31-62 (.333) in the regular season, tied with Oakland for the fifth fewest victories in the NFL over that span.
- Juxtapose that with the 16 seasons that preceded Snyder’s ownership in Washington, from 1983 to ’98, when the franchise had 11 winning seasons, eight double-digit win records, seven playoff berths, three Super Bowl trips, two Super Bowl titles and a 12-5 mark in the postseason. Pre-Snyder, Washington endured just five losing seasons in the previous 16 years, almost completely flipping the script.
- On the coaching front, Snyder has churned through eight coaches in his tenure, the same amount the rest of the NFC East has had combined from 1999 on. There have been 28 full-time head coaches in Washington’s long franchise history, and Snyder has employed seven of them (25%) all by himself. The list includes drive-by stints turned in by Marty Schottenheimer (8-8 in his lone season of 2001); a 12-20 two-year run by Steve Spurrier in 2002-03; another 12-20 showing by Jim Zorn in 2008-09; and after giving Shanahan twice as long a tenure, Washington still got the same level of production at 24-40.
And now there are conflicting media reports on whether Gruden will be one-and-done after this season’s debacle concludes, potentially adding his name to the list before he exits through the revolving door. I’ve said and written this before, but no one ever leaves Washington better off than when they arrived, with their reputation enhanced and their good name burnished. Once you put on that burgundy, it amounts to the scarlet ‘A’ of the NFL. You’re tarnished. Handsomely paid, but tarnished. And that goes for players, coaches, front office members, whomever.
And that’s the most maddening thing about this cycle of defeat and disillusionment. Under Snyder, the dynamic never changes. The mismanagement, short-sighted personnel moves and lack of patience by ownership have made this a franchise that is simply not set up for long-term success. Bad decision-making begets more bad decision-making, and there’s constant rebuilding and repair being undertaken in an effort to make up for the mistakes of the past.
Around the holidays, with another season lost, I sometimes wonder if this team's to-the-core fans ever dream of some reverse NFL version of It’s a Wonderful Life, where’s there’s a parallel universe of what life would look like in D.C. had Snyder never bought the franchise. Sadly, they wake up and realize they don’t live in Bedford Falls, Mr. Potter still owns the team, and he just sent out the season-ticket renewal packages.
I’m not trying to take sides in the Griffin-Gruden tug-of-war, but if Snyder runs another head coach out of there after just a single ill-fated season, it’s another layer of proof that the owner continues to make the same mistakes over and over again, while expecting different results each time. The insanity definition is the only one that fits. Snyder always claims to have learned and grown in the job compared to his impulsive past, but his actions always wind up speaking far louder.
As for Griffin, he looks like a lost, lonely soul and a beaten young man these days, just two years removed from the magic carpet ride that was his spectacular 2012 rookie campaign—at least until it crashed gruesomely due to his twin late-season knee injuries. It’s entirely possible Washington may already have broken him, and he’s still a few months shy of his 25th birthday.
And so it goes. Gruden is a goner. Griffin is staying. Griffin is a goner. Gruden is staying. The comings and goings have been so steady in Washington, and sometimes so fast and furious, that any sense of stability is always sacrificed. Only Snyder is a constant, and he’s the one principal character in this mess who’s not going anywhere. Now even visiting opponents (see Rams coach Jeff Fisher) seem to delight in reminding Washington’s owner of what I once called Snyder’s “impeccable reverse Midas Touch.’’
This week I asked a trusted long-time league source for his assessment of Washington’s latest predicament, and how it fits into the grander scheme of the franchise’s pattern of futility. He’s not a club official, so it’s not a case of someone who’s in competition with Snyder’s team. But his insight was damning. Snyder, he said, listens to the wrong people, with the wrong opinions, and draws the wrong conclusions from that process. Is there any real surprise, then, that Washington seems to end almost every season in disarray, searching for answers and contemplating starting over?
This is Gruden’s first experience in the death spiral of a season in D.C., and he’s clearly at a loss on how to pull out of it. By now, his words are familiar, as is the lost look in his eyes. We’ve seen and heard it many times before from his predecessors.
“We had nothing—no big plays, no sparks, no energy really, unfortunately—that really got us going,’’ Gruden said at his news conference on Monday, the day after Washington’s dispirited 24-0 loss to the Rams, its fifth in a row. “So, we’ve got to get something going in a positive way to get our fans into it and get the players a little more bounce in their step, and we just haven’t had that.”
This is December in Washington, Jay. Whatever is missing, this franchise hasn’t really had it since Daniel Snyder arrived.
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