Someone tried. It was just after Robert Griffin III ran that nifty read-option to score at the end of the first quarter against the Rams on Sept. 16, St. Louis defenders falling over themselves, the rookie grinning. All the uptown faces staring at the televisions, all the bodies cozied up against the bar, burst out with roars at the sight of it: 14--3 Washington, on the road! And now one guy on a stool gave it a shot. "Hail ... To the Red-Skins!" he sang out, pretty much on key. But no one joined in. His voice trailed off. You could feel it, even if no one said it: Too soon, pal.
This is an article from the Oct. 1, 2012 issue
Still, it's alive again, the old cocky vibe. That almost rubelike civic want has been pulsing all over oh-so-sophisticated Washington, D.C., lately, threatening to break into full-on Hog-faced overkill ever since the season opener in New Orleans when Griffin put on the greatest Week 1 performance by a rookie NFL quarterback. "The fans are there: They're ready to be excited for us," says Redskins cornerback Josh Wilson, who earned his bona fides selling chicken fingers and hot dogs at FedEx Field when he was in high school. "It's been a while since we felt like we did in the mid-1990s. But after that first game? That was the feeling. That's what this town used to feel like every week."
By town, Wilson is referring as much to the Maryland burbs and Virginia mall clusters as he is to this 600,000-strong city that, in layout as much as in the juxtaposition of historic quaintness and urban ills, resembles a vintage postage stamp savaged along one edge. But the District—abandoned by the team in 1997, scorned by vote-happy pols and flyover states as a handy symbol of America gone to hell—remains the fractured core of whatever we mean when we speak of the Redskins' identity. The city's love for the team is a deep, troubled and wondrous thing, and with its last Super Bowl payoff, 20 years ago, came a civic unity that it hasn't experienced since.
So, no, maybe it shouldn't have been a shock to see The Washington Post run, on the front of its Sept. 13 sports section, a bold-faced string of the characters RG3, repeated 29 times. But you could have been convinced, these last few years, that D.C. didn't need the Redskins to be world-beaters anymore. Not with Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals—who moved from Landover to F Street, downtown, the same year football left—making the Verizon Center an unmatched madhouse. And not with the Nationals swaggering, in just their eighth season, into the city's first baseball playoff berth since 1933.
Indeed, at first blush it isn't easy to find a strictly Redskins watering hole in this town. Washington isn't Boston. Residents hail from everywhere, and the many bars cater to fans from rival cities—Pittsburgh, Dallas, Philadelphia—nearly as much as they do to Redskins partisans. In fact, as often as not, Best of D.C. lists will direct you—for atmosphere, history and, yes, passion—to Nellie's at U and Ninth, a gay bar that may well capture the essence of today's District better than any other institution.
This is not just because the men's room boasts sinks salvaged from old Griffith Stadium, the ancestral home of the Redskins and the Senators. The fact is, once you get past the disco ball, the shirtless bartenders and the sly motto (Join our team!), once you realize that, in their polyester jerseys and cargo shorts, gay men can dress just as badly as straight men, a quick scan reveals the crowd to be one of D.C.'s few true melting pots. Gays, yes, but also hetero couples, blacks, whites, Latinos, women with money and men unsure of how long their jobs will last—all pack the place each autumn Sunday. And when Griffin dropped a 68-yard touchdown lob into Leonard Hankerson's shaky hands in the second quarter against the Rams, the communal Whooooa ... yeah! boomed out the open front door and into the fading D.C. light.
It didn't last, of course. Griffin rushed for another touchdown, but the Skins' injury-wracked defense couldn't stop a jaywalker, much less Sam Bradford. The shootout came down to receiver Josh Morgan—a D.C. native, no less—sabotaging Washington's final drive when he was penalized for hurling the ball at cornerback Cortland Finnegan. The air at Nellie's filled with words like idiot and Same old f------ Skins! But even as Washington's final field goal attempt sailed wide right and the clock expired, those words didn't come pickled in the usual despair.
At one table, in fact, Gwen Brock, born and bred in the District and wearing the number 46 jersey of waived running back Ryan Torain, sat smiling. She didn't mind waiting for the crowd to thin. Just the idea of RG3 was enough to make her happy.
"He gives us hope," Brock said. "The most hope I've felt in 10 years."
Hope? No place does hope—dashed, disillusioned or reborn—quite like D.C. Seemingly every presidential election prompts the rhetorical question, Can This Man Fix Washington? And if the implied answer is almost always, No Chance!, the fact that it's even asked, that people still think the place and the ideal that it represents are worth fixing, is hope in itself. This time, however, Griffin is like a cartoon version of what didn't take politically. Four years after Barack Obama promised what Sarah Palin called "that hopey-changey stuff," here comes another hypergifted black man, astonishingly self-assured and given, from Day One, to lecturing his grizzled opponents for their petty and regrettable ways.
"They were doing a lot of dirty things," Griffin said, when asked about the Rams' jawing, late-hitting defense in Week 2. For a Baylor grad just two games into his pro career, that was startling enough, especially since NFL code dictates that rookies take their welcome-to-the league lumps quietly. But then Griffin went on to chide, essentially, the entire St. Louis coaching staff, its players and the officials and, in the process, send a pointed memo to commissioner Roger Goodell.
"They have an extremely good team; that doesn't take anything away from them, but the game was unprofessional," Griffin said. "Who am I to talk? I've barely been a pro for very long, but ... it does need to be cleaned up."
That Griffin didn't care a whit for how he'd be perceived is, for Skins fans anyway, part of his appeal. Few rookies have come to Washington seemingly so grounded; even Obama has yet to pull off Griffin's knack for smirking at all the messiah talk while somehow validating its source. "It's like a much, much bigger Baylor," Griffin said of the D.C. area. "Once I got to Baylor, I was deemed the savior of that program, and it's the same thing here. But what I tell people is, It's not just me out there. I tell the team that too. And they realize that; they know [they] have to help me go out there and win the game."
Fans? "Oh, man, I can't go anywhere without a hoodie or a hat on," he said. "The fans, they want a piece of me. They want to talk to you, they want to let you know that they're behind you all the time—no matter what. I'm going to hold them to that. Hopefully we won't have any of those bad times. We're looking forward to winning for them, and for ourselves."
In the District, though, "them" means something far less uniform, and far more quirky, than it does in the more flush counties across the Potomac. "Washington is the nation's capital, but it's the most un-American place in America," says Tom Sherwood, a reporter for Washington's NBC affiliate, who has been covering local politics since 1974. "We don't have the same voting rights that Americans have, we don't have the same control over local issues that Americans have in every other place. Everyone comes from out of town—for Congress and for the presidency—and tries to tell us what to do. But I like it."
The city's most famous faces—pols, diplomats, talking heads—have for decades lived mostly in the largely white and liberal upper Northwest quadrant, consumed by the doings of the federal, not local, government, traveling for the State Department or the World Bank, skimming over the surface for four or eight years before leaving. While the U.S. has been wrestling the last five years with recession, D.C.'s gentrifying and high-end neighborhoods have survived relatively unscathed, and average income in the city has shot up.
But below the marble-slick surface exists a poorer, more desperate District, dominated by an underclass struggling to stay afloat amid the rising tide. The jump in salaries has only exacerbated the gap between haves and have-nots: Compared against all 50 states, D.C. now ranks first in the nation in income inequality. Sixty-nine percent of the city's public school students need subsidized lunches, and only 9% eventually graduate from college. Necessity forced the District to become ground zero of the charter school movement, but one effect has been an even more capsulized city. The only community-building entities left have been the Metro system, with its eternally broken escalators, and the professional sports teams, with their numbingly losing ways.
That a Redskins performance has long had a "huge unifying and catalytic effect," as D.C. mayor Vincent Gray describes it, on the city's collective mood is a given, and one reason he'd like the team to come home. Preliminary talks are under way for a new team training center in the District, but "what I really support is building a stadium," says Gray. "The Washington Redskins should be in Washington."
If Gray sounds a bit miffed, it's because he is. Aggrieved embattlement has been part of the D.C. mind-set ever since the Brits torched the place nearly 200 years ago. If you're not mad about something—the District's AIDS epidemic or its glaring lack of a vote in Congress or the Redskins' two measly playoff wins over the last two decades—then you're not really living in D.C. at all.
"Dan Snyder sucks," in fact, has been a fan mantra since 1999, when the communications mogul bought the team and embarked on an endless string of hapless head coaches, inane p.r. moves and free-agent busts. So if it was no shock that a fan, frustrated by the three-time Super Bowl champions' failure to play in that game in 20 years, tweeted out that declaration during last February's big game, then his identity certainly was. "I could have used a different word than 'sucks'," says former four-term D.C. mayor and current city council member Marion Barry, "but people got the feeling. They knew what I was talking about."
Yes, Barry has his detractors too. Nationwide he'll forever be remembered as the mayor nabbed in a 1990 FBI sting ("Bitch set me up") for smoking crack, and who then served six months in federal prison. Just last April he apologized for making public slurs against Asian shop owners.
But Barry's support in the city, especially in his Ward 8 base, has rarely wavered. He was reelected as mayor after doing time, and since 2005 he has been a consistent voice for the city's most marginalized residents.
Over the years, the Skins have given District fans so many reasons to keep their distance that even those prone to being appalled by the Mayor for Life found themselves nodding at Barry's tweet. Washington, after all, was the last NFL team to integrate—generating "a lot of hostility and anger among people in the city," Gray says—and black wariness of the team didn't fade until 1988, after Doug Williams became the first (and still only) black quarterback to win a Super Bowl.
There's also the team name and logo that offend Native American and liberal sensibilities; and, worst of all, the decision by former owner Jack Kent Cooke to move, in 1997, from the cozy, thunderous confines of RFK Stadium into the team's current sterile cashbox in Landover, Maryland.
"Ain't nothing like it," Williams says fondly of the old digs. "If there's anything RG3's going to miss, it's rocking RFK. It was such a close environment—it was almost like the fans put their arms around you."
D.C. fans have their many theories about the team's losing ways, but the mystical is a popular one. "The Redskins left here, and they've been cursed ever since," says Barry. "The spirit there right now? Dan Snyder has the second-richest NFL team in America, and he's making money hand over fist—but you don't get the same feel. Anybody out at RFK Stadium—whether they were a construction worker or a bank president—felt comfortable being part of the Redskins and chanting, "Hail ... To the Red-Skins!"
By the end of his tirade, though he's trying to stay mad, Barry is actually singing the song. "I think they've been cursed," he says again with a nod. But then a smile breaks across his face. His eyes widen.
"Until this year," he says.
To hear the giddy believers, Snyder suddenly got smart last March, when the Redskins traded St. Louis four draft choices (three first-rounders and a second-rounder) for the chance to select Griffin with the second pick in the draft. His speed, build and quick release seemed tailored to solve the franchise's quarterback woes, and his squeaky-clean background and Academic All-America smarts made him worth the once-in-a-generation gamble.
"He's perfect," says Fred Smoot, who played seven seasons at cornerback for Washington in the 2000s. "If I were the Redskins, I would've given up FedEx Field for him. He will be their quarterback until the day he chooses to retire. He's going to change how people view the Redskins, because everybody views us as an up-and-down team that has a lot of athletes and a rich owner. He's one of those athletes who changes franchises."
Williams, the Redskins' pioneer, is like most players: He never put on another player's jersey once he took off his own. But even though he's the head coach at Grambling, Williams had to get himself a GRIFFIN III jersey this year. Near the end of Griffin's historic opener in New Orleans, Williams put it on for the first time. "You got a cellphone?" he asked this writer. "I'm going to text you this picture!"
The way Williams sees it, Griffin's race is not nearly as important today as it was back when he played, and he's probably right. With all trends pointing to the city's African-American population losing its majority after five decades, D.C. is no longer Chocolate City, and black quarterbacks today play in a "postracial" NFL. The last time anybody thought a quarterback could make a lasting social difference might well have been back after that Super Bowl win in January 1988; Williams, in the city's victory parade, took in all those hundreds of thousands of white and black faces, so close, so happy together. Progress these days isn't quite as easy to see.
"It's great, but it's not the silver bullet that can pull everything together," Barry says of Griffin-mania. "When people see a football game, they still say, 'I need a job. That ain't putting bread and potatoes on my table.' We have unemployment, homelessness and despair."
But Sunday's home opener against Cincinnati was lovely in its own way. A perfect sun warmed Snyder's stadium, with its pricey parking lots and 243 luxury suites. The Skins overcame a horrendous first half and scored 17 unanswered points to make it a game in the fourth quarter. Griffin went 16 of 24 for 185 yards with one touchdown pass in the second half, running for another 62 yards and a score, and when the air wasn't bursting with chants of "R-G-3!" people were singing, as one, about fighting "for old D.C."
It's a tribute to his gifts that, even with the Skins down 14 points and seven minutes left, most of the 80,060 faithful stayed in their seats. Griffin then engineered a perfect 90-yard drive—a three-minute and 33-second clinic that, in poise and time-management, showed just how good he can be. "He made a lot of great plays at the end that a lot of people can't make," said Redskins coach Mike Shanahan. "That's what the great ones do."
So they stayed until the game's final play, Washington facing a ridiculous third-and-50 with seven seconds left, and they walked away believers. It will have to do. The Skins lost 38--31 and fell to 1--2 with a schedule figuring to get much harder, fast. So far the offensive line can't protect Griffin, and the defense (ranked 30th in yards allowed) isn't helping.
In one end zone a banner hung all afternoon—GRIFFIN III FOR PRESIDENT 2012—and it seemed funnier by the minute. Fix Washington? Fixing the Redskins will be tough enough.
Where does Griffin stack up against other first-year passers, like Andrew Luck? Chris Burke ranks the rookie QBs at NFL.SI.com