Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Heartbreak & Elation: Washington Redskins

The 2012 version of the Washington Redskins ran the gamut of emotions for fans.  Hope, excitement, confusion, despair, encouragement, exuberance and ultimately frustration and distraught were all felt by loyal fans of the burgundy and gold.

This got me thinking, what were the 10 moments in my personal history of being a Redskins fan of both heartbreak and elation.  I was born in 1978 and was raised in the shadow of the Nation's Capital during the heyday of the franchise.  By the time I got to high school the Redskins had won 3 Super Bowls and played in a fourth.  In the 21 seasons since their last Super Bowl victory, Washington has won just three playoff games...three!  My memories of the 'elation' part of this list are diminishing faster than my hairline and that's saying something.  The 'heartbreak' portion of the list proved awfully difficult to compile which actually shocked me.  I guess when you are five weeks into a season and already despondent its not easy to actually feel heartbreak when the losses continue to pile up.

I'm going to start with the good so that everyone is in a happy go lucky mood when I strip the band-aid off in the second half of the post.


Honorable mentions:
1982 Super Bowl (Too young to remember it)
Darryl Green punt return vs. Chicago in 1987 playoffs
1983 Regular Season of scoring

10. 1991 Week 10 vs. Houston Oilers

I might as well start in the middle of the dream season of my childhood.  The Redskins stood 8-0 and the city was abuzz with Super Bowl dreams.  But that was just the kicker, we were thinking about an undefeated season.  I had started into my ritualistic habits of wearing the same shirt, sitting in the same spot and trying to avoid speaking of the record.  After barely surviving the week before at New York on Monday Night Football, the Redskins were once again sluggish against the 7-1 Oilers.  With a chance to win the game, kicker Ian Howfield shanked a field goal attempt and the Redskins won in overtime to get to 9-0.  Yes it was going to be a good year.

9. The Return of Joe Gibbs

Joe Gibbs could do no wrong in Washington D.C. during his first stint as head coach of the Washington Redskins.  With 126 wins over 12 seasons (10.5/year) and 3 Super Bowls, he had built a Hall of Fame resume.  Then he left and over the next 11 seasons the Redskins won just 74 game (6.7/year) and won just a single playoff game.  To say that the fans were starved for a winner is a major understatement.  Washington tried stealing from the enemy (Norv Turner), hiring a grizzled veteran (Marty Schottenheimer) and plucked the ol' ball coach from college (Steve Spurrier) in the hopes at returning to the promised land.  I was beside myself upon hearing the news that Gibbs was coming back.  All I knew of him was winning and I expected nothing but that once again.  It may not have worked out the way we dreamed, but there's not a single Redskins fan who didn't think this was the best news ever.

8. 2005 Week 2 Monday Night Football at Dallas

In what would turn out to be a playoff season, the Redskins came up with a little late night magic in the den of evil known as Cowboys Stadium.  Even at 1-0, Washington's offense under Joe Gibbs had looked abysmal to say the least.  In Week 1 the Redskins won without scoring a touchdown and 3 quarters into the game against Dallas the next week, they hadn't scored a single point.  This game stands out because it was one of the rare occasions where I hosted a viewing party for the game.  I had about 10 Washington fans and a lone Cowboys fan over to my house with my new wife (married just 23 days earlier).  By 11 pm, half the people were either asleep or dozing off.  One guy had nearly broken a knuckle punching my dry wall in anger.  Then Mark Brunell and Santana Moss woke up the neighborhood.  With six minutes to play the Redskins started a drive that resulted in a Brunell to Moss touchdown and one minute later they connected on a game winning 70 yard bomb.  Everyone was awake, not only in my house, but my neighborhood and in all of the surrounding area of Washington D.C.. It was glorious.

7. 2012 Week 1 - RGIII Marches into New Orleans 

After a very mediocre preseason from the Redskins first team offense and their prized 1st round draft pick Robert Griffin III, there was an aura of trepidation about whether Griffin was ready to lead the Redskins or even good enough to be an NFL quarterback.  Griffin guided the Redskins to a field goal on his first drive, but it was an 88 yard strike to Pierre Garcon that opened the floodgates on his rookie campaign.  By games end, nobody was calling him by his full name, but solely RGIII and a legend was born.  He threw for 320 yards, 2 touchdowns and ran for 42 yards while out gunning Drew Brees in New Orleans.  He would go on to have many more memorable moments, both good and bad, but it was the first week that got everyone buzzing about what could possibly be for the future of the team.  

6. 2012 Week 17 vs. Dallas

Sixteen weeks after his debut, RGIII and the Redskins had a home game to decide the NFC East crown.  The Redskins had not won a division title since 1999, but were riding a six game winning streak into their prime time, winner take all finale against the hated Cowboys.  The entire season had kept a spotlight on RGIII, but it was another rookie that finally stepped out of the shadows and stole the headlines.  Alfred Morris carried the ball 33 times for 200 yards and 3 touchdowns as the Redskins bulldozed Dallas 28-18.  With their 7th win in a row, Washington was now guaranteed to host a playoff game for the first time since 1999.  More importantly the win ended the Cowboys season which outside of winning a Super Bowl is every fans dream year in and year out.

5. 2005 Playoff Game vs. Tampa Bay

In the second year under Joe Gibbs (part 2) the Redskins got hot at the right time of the year, winning their final five games of the season.  Their reward was a trip to Tampa Bay to face the Buccaneers.  As a slight underdog, my friends and I (once again gathered at my house) still expected a victory based on hot streak and they did, but that's not what I took away from this game.  That will always stick in my mind as the game where we saw the best and worst of Sean Taylor.  Not only did he score on a fumble return to give Washington a 14-0 lead, but he was later ejected for spitting into the face of another player.  He had plenty of trouble on and off the field before this game, but this was the turning point in his short lived career when he became an on field force and left the off field shenanigans behind.

4. 2004 Week 1 vs. Tampa Bay

Not only was this the first game of the new Joe Gibbs era, not only was it the first game for Clinton Portis on the Redskins, but it was my first ever opening game that I attended.  The weather was pristine and I was expecting something special.  Then it happened.  Clinton Portis got the opening hand off and raced 64 yards for a touchdown.  My friend and I went absolutely bat crazy in the stands.  I do believe the words 'Super Bowl' and 'Dynasty' were thrown around.  Yeah, we lost it.  It was fun for the 30 seconds while it lasted, but reality set in the Redskins struggled the rest of the game eking out a victory, but limping to a 6-10 season.

3. 2005 Week 15 vs. Dallas

In an eerily similar fashion to 2012 (and 2007 for that matter), the 2005 version of the Washington Redskins played their best ball down the stretch winning their final five games of the season to make the playoffs.  The game that stood out for me was Week 15 against Dallas.  This is personal.  That week my cousin, who was just two years older than me and the closest person I ever had to having a brother was killed in a car accident.  He played football at Langley High School in McLean, he loved the Redskins and it hit me hard.  My family went to his house for every Super Bowl during the decade of excellence for Washington.  The Redskins had always been the bond that our families could agree on.  I spent all week at their house in Great Falls and the only thing I felt comfortable talking about was the Redskins.  I mentioned that I was going to the game on Sunday night against Dallas.  It was my first ever Redskins/Cowboys game.  They were 8-5 and the Redskins were 7-6.  There was no chance I would let the Redskins lose.  I cheered for them in honor of John Matthew.  I still remember my uncle telling me that at least John Matthew and his grandfather (whom we lost in 1983) would now always have front row seats to Redskins games in heaven.  Boy did Washington respond.  They jumped out to a 35-0 lead behind three Chris Cooley touchdowns and thumped Dallas.  They then beat New York and Philadelphia to finish the regular season.  I can't really explain what I felt that Sunday night, but I certainly understand when players like Brett Favre and Torrey Smith have career games with heavy hearts.

2. 1987 Super Bowl vs. Denver

The first Super Bowl I remember watching was the Bears romp over the Patriots in 1985.  Two years later I got my first taste of a Washington Super Bowl.  My family drove to my Aunt and Uncle's house because they not only had the big screen (probably 32" at the time), but also a play room for the kids.  Everyone was dressed in burgundy and gold.  It was a festive atmosphere, but I was only nine years old and didn't fully grasp the magnitude of the situation.  I knew to root for Washington and when they fell down 10-0 early on and their quarterback, Doug Williams, looked to get injured, things looked bad.  The house was quiet, the kids were restless.  Then the 2nd quarter happened.  35 points...unanswered.  The Redskins set numerous records that night, but it was that 15 minute quarter that my Dad would talk about for the next couple of years.  Touchdown, Washington Redskins...touchdown, Washington Redskins.  That was all I could hear and that meant good things.  The house came to life, drinks were poured and the celebration was on.  I've gone back and watched the Super Bowl highlights of that game as an adult and am amazed that one team could just dominate like that in such a short amount of time.

1. 1991 Super Bowl vs. Buffalo

Ah, the game that seems to be further and further away daily.  By 1991 I fully grasped the Redskins and what they meant to not only my family, but the city as a whole.  I had friends of other teams by then so the juvenile trash talking had begun.  I told my Cowboys friend about how bad they were everyday.  Nobody told me that Dallas would start its run of Super Bowls the next season.  But, before we get to that, let's reminisce about the last greatest night in Redskins history.  The 1991 team was probably the best Redskins team in history.  They didn't just beat their opponents, but destroyed them.  In 1982 Washington outscored their opponents by 62 points, in 1987 it was 94 points.  In 1991 the Redskins outscored their opponents by a whopping 261 points.  The game against Buffalo was more of a coronation in my mind rather than a contest.  That's exactly what it turned out to be.  It was 17-0 at halftime, 31-10 at the end of 3 quarters and a third Super Bowls resided in D.C..  Life was good.

And then it was not.


Honorable Mentions:
2nd Half of the 2008 Season
1990 Playoff loss to San Francisco
1983 Super Bowl vs. Los Angeles 

10. 1991 Week 13 loss to Dallas

The best of the worst.  The Redskins were 11-0, thinking about an undefeated season and coming off a 41-14 romp AT Pittsburgh (wrap that around your head for a second).  Back at home against rival Dallas, the Redskins were highly expected to keep their perfect record intact as they were 12.5 point favorites.  Well something funny happened on the way to that and unfortunately it was a sneak peek at how the franchises were about to swap places during the remainder of the 90's.  The young Cowboys walked into RFK stadium and upset Washington which easily cost them their undefeated season.  There's no way Washington would have lost in the final game if they were still undefeated.  I still blame the loss on my neighbors.  Instead of sitting in my same spot at my house I had to do an emergency baby sitting job that afternoon.  It through the balance of nature off and cost the Redskins dearly.

9. 2nd Half of the 2000 Season

The year of the aging superstar.  Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders and Jeff George were brought in to help the defending NFC East champions take that next step.  After a 6-2 start to the season, everything was looking rosy.  Outside of not having a field goal kicker that could kick, the team had the promise of a Super Bowl contender.  Then it all fell apart.  Washington lost 4 of its next 5 games, Norv Turner was fired, and the season was a bust.  The Redskins tried five kickers, two quarterbacks, two head coaches and mortgaged the future by signing high priced, overrated, washed up players.  Good times, good times.

8. 1992 Playoff Loss to San Francisco

Another game that foreshadowed bad times.  The defending Super Bowl champions backed into the playoffs in 1992 after dropping their final two games of the season to finish 9-7.  Then they went up to Minnesota and manhandled the 11-5 Vikings and people were thinking that the ship had been righted and a Super Bowl might still be a possibility.  Going to San Francisco was going to be a challenge, but the Redskins were still in the game on their final drive.  A late interception and then a turnover on downs in the final minute kept the Redskins from advancing as they were dethroned.  Washington was an aging bunch of players and not set up well for the next couple of seasons.  Joe Gibbs knew this and decided to retire which was the cherry on top of the beginning of the end for happiness as we knew it.

7. 2007 Playoff loss to Seattle

This team really had no business being in the playoffs.  They weren't really that good, but had found a new sense of purpose following the loss of Sean Taylor.  Mark Brunell had been injured and Todd Collins led Washington to four straight victories to end the regular season.  Even despite this, the Redskins led the Seahawks in Seattle 14-13 in the 4th quarter (sounds familiar).  I was stuck at work that night and listening to the game on the radio.  When Washington took the lead I was bubbling with hope.  I then got called out to the sales floor and came back 20 minutes later and it was 35-14 Seattle.  In a blink of a eye, the season was over and all the feelings of Sean Taylor came rushing back.  Joe Gibbs again put the period at the end of the sentence by retiring once again, leaving Redskins nation rudderless.

6. 2006 Preseason injury to Clinton Portis

After making the playoffs in 2005, I had high hopes (to be fair I have high hopes every year as any decent fan should) for the 2006 version of the Washington Redskins.  I thought the playoffs were a certainty under Gibbs and all they had to do was make it to Week 1 healthy.  That didn't happen.  I refuse to watch the preseason because it seems like only bad things can happen.  Early in week one, the worst possible scenario occurred.  Clinton Portis who had just set the Redskins single season rushing record in 2005 injured his shoulder chasing down a defender after a turnover.  Of all the ways to start a season on the wrong foot.  Even though Portis played some in Week 1, he was never the same that season.  One injury begat another one and the season proved to be yet another step backwards as they went 5-11.

5. Joe Thesmann Injury in 1985

Should I just post the video and move on??

This was the first game I ever remember watching.  I can only wonder why it stuck with me all these years.  My parents were nice enough to let me stay up and watch Monday Night Football, but I'm sure they still regret that decision.  Oh the nightmares I must have had that week.  No player should have to go through something like that, I just can't imagine the pain.

4. 2005 Playoff Loss to Seattle

In a recurring theme of more recent playoff history of the franchise, yet another season was ended by the Seattle Seahawks.  After defeating Tampa Bay, the Redskins were on the cusp of heading to the NFC Championship game if only they could get past Seattle.  It was another low scoring, close game until the 4th quarter (sounds familiar) when the Seahawks opened a two touchdown lead.  Of course the Redskins marched right back down the field to cut the lead in half, but they couldn't get any closer.  This ranks high on my list because I wanted to believe the Redskins were a team of destiny following the death of my cousin.  I wanted the story to have a silver lining, but I should have known better that there isn't any correlation between the two things.  I just wanted it so much for my Aunt and Uncle.

3. 1999 Botched FG attempt vs. Tampa Bay in the Playoffs

The same day as the Music City Miracle in Tennessee will always stick with me as the day the Redskins couldn't even get off an attempt of a game winning field goal in Tampa Bay.  After beating Detroit in the playoffs, Washington had a real shot at advancing against the Buccaneers.  They led Tampa Bay 13-0 in the 3rd quarter before that quickly slipped away.  With just over a minute left, Washington lined up for a 52 yard potential game winning field goal, but the snap was bad and Brad Johnson couldn't line it up for Brett Conway.  Just like that, the season was over.  It left a bitter taste in my mouth not because of the loss, but just because they didn't even get the attempt off.  The not knowing of whether it would have been good or not is the worst part.

2. RGIII Knee Injury Caps Off Loss to Seattle in 2012 Playoffs

The most recent event of this list is easily the most painful on the field loss in my lifetime (that I remember).  Not only did the Redskins look completely dominant in the first 15 minutes of the game, but were riding a 7 game winning streak in which every break seemed to go their way.  All of that was washed away as the ligaments in the knee of RGIII continued to degrade.  Down 21-14 the Redskins had one final shot at scoring their first points since the first quarter.  A bad snap (again!) led to an awkward tumble for RGIII that led to the final tearing of his ACL and LCL.  For all we know they could have already been torn, but replays put the injury on full display and his rookie season was now over.  What compounds the fact of the loss is the complete unknown of what this will do to the career of the supposed franchise savior.  This is the 2nd time in his life that he has torn his ACL and seeing as speed and running are such a dynamic piece to his game, fans just don't know what we will get from RGIII when he returns sometime in the 2013 season.  Maybe this will be the era of Kirk Cousins after all.

1. The Death of Sean Taylor

Teams win, teams lose.  Fans cheer, fans cry.  Seasons come and seasons go.  Rookies arrive and veterans retire.  Nothing compares to a player losing his life.  Nothing.  Sean Taylor had turned the corner in his career on and off the field entering the 2007 season.  He was now a team leader, a respected defensive player and ready to take his career to the next level.  Before being injured that season, Taylor was seen as a defensive player of the year candidate.  He had five interceptions in his nine games that season and the team was 5-4.  They lost the two games without him and fell to 5-6 and then the worst possible nightmare for Taylor happened.  His house was broken into and he was shot and killed trying to protect his family from the thieves.  I am not nearly eloquent enough of a writer to put it into words how this affected the city.  The Redskins took the field next against the Buffalo Bills and lost partly due to a brain cramp by head coach Joe Gibbs who obviously had bigger, more important things on his mind.  Just like #3 and #2 on this list, extra points were given due to the unknown factor.  I try to imagine the player Sean Taylor was about to become and how he would have solidified the free safety position in the franchise for the next decade a la Ed Reed in Baltimore.  Oh what could have been.

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