On Sunday, the Washington Redskins lost to a San Francisco 49ers team that is not as good as its 7-1 record implies.
A few years ago I was talking with a friend who is an avid Washington Redskins fan when he told me, "If the Redskins ever win another Super Bowl, I'm going to celebrate and then retire as a fan. They'll probably go back to being terrible the next year, and I can barely tolerate rooting for this team season after season."
That statement may seem oxymoronic, but it's actually strangely brilliant, and it articulates the defeatist perspective that is pervasive throughout Washington's fan base.
There are a lot of professional sports franchises that specialize in futility. The Chicago Cubs, the Buffalo Bills and the Los Angeles Clippers are three that come to mind. But each of those teams possesses at least one redeeming quality that makes it easier for fans to tolerate the losing.
Cubs fans are comforted by the fact that their team plays in arguably the greatest baseball stadium in the country.
Bills fans can proudly boast that while their city has significantly diminished in terms of economic prowess and general relevance, western New Yorkers have loyally supported their Bills through thick and thin.
And Clippers fans are 1) kind of foolish for choosing to support a woeful franchise with a possibly racist owner when they could cheer for the Lakers, and 2) can take solace in the fact they live in Southern California, a place replete with plenty of entertainment options to take their minds off Blake Griffin and co.'s collective struggles.
Redskins fans have nothing to which they can turn for comfort. Their team plays in a stadium that has no character. The city of Washington has thrived over the past decade while the Redskins have struggled. And perhaps worst of all, the region's transient population means fans have to stand by as people move into their city from all over the country and root for their respective home teams while scoffing at the Redskins. It's humiliating, and something that is truly unique to Washington.
The franchise spends money every year on high-profile players and coaches, but can't buy a consistent team. They have been reduced to a joke, a perennial door mat and a punch line for lazy sportswriters.
Being a Redskins fan is an infuriating experience with a unique set of qualities. I challenge anybody to name a franchise that is more exasperating for its fan base.
The 2011 Redskins are a continuation of this tradition. After a 3-1 start that foolishly caused fans, and certain pundits, to think this team was for real, they have showed their true colors by dropping the last four games in exasperating fashion. Here are four things about this Redskins team that infuriate fans.
Jabar Gaffney is the Redskins only decent receiver, but he still doesn't give the team a consistent big play threat.
On the Redskins' first possession against the 49ers, when faced with a third down, Beck threw a perfect crossing route to Terrence Austin, who failed to get his hands up in time and dropped the pass. That play set the tone for the rest of the game.
It seems like every Redskins receiver, with the exception of Jabar Gaffney, had at least one dropped pass or missed route that resulted in an incompletion.
At one point in the game, Beck dropped back and threw a strike down the middle of the field that should have been caught by Niles* Paul. But Paul had inexplicably pulled up short on his slant route and the ball sailed incomplete.
Plays like those make you feel for Beck, who is essentially a rookie—he's only played in nine NFL games—and is working behind a patchwork offensive line. I watched the Giants-Patriots game after the Redskins loss, and the thing that stood out the most is how great those two teams' receiving corps seem when juxtaposed with the Redskins.
Fans in Washington wish that just once the team could draft an explosive wideout who would strike fear in the hearts of opposing defenses. Desmond Howard and Michael Westbrook were supposed to be that player. Santana Moss was that guy for his first few years in Washington, but his explosiveness has tailed off. Not since the days of the posse have the Redskins sported a set of reliable pass catchers.
The thing about having a great receiver is that even when your team loses you can enjoy the highlights such a player provides. Panthers fans can wash away the aftertaste of a loss by watching highlights of Steve Smith burning cornerbacks. Redskins fans have to settle for watching replays of Graham Gano field goals. The team is boring in addition to being bad.
This article originally misspelled Niles Paul's name.
John Beck seems afraid to throw the ball more than 10 yards.
The poor play of the receiving corps does not absolve Beck of his mistakes.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: John Beck is not a legitimate NFL quarterback. He's inaccurate—only 50 percent of his passes are on target—and he has a terrible pocket presence, something that was on display against the 49ers.
As the FOX announcers pointed out on numerous occasions throughout Sunday's telecast, the Redskins receivers, as bad as they were, were consistently open down the field, but Beck refused to even look their way—much less throw them the ball.
His skittishness in the pocket prevented him from making the correct reads. With two minutes left in the third quarter, Beck's longest completion was a mere 13 yards. His 5.4 yards per pass average reflected his tendency to throw short screen after short screen to Roy Helu. Helu ended up with 14 catches, breaking the franchise record for most receptions in a game, but this short ball strategy did not help the offense put points on the board.
Rex Grossman lost the starting job because of his penchant for interceptions, but interceptions are often the result of aggressive play. Grossman pushed that aggressiveness a bit too far; Beck doesn't push it far enough.
Grossman was bad; Beck has also been bad. At this rate, I'm not convinced re-signing Jeff George would be a bad idea.
The Redskins defense has been great all season long. They came into Sunday's game ranked fifth in terms of points allowed and 12th overall. Those rankings would have been even higher if the Redskins' offense didn't consistently put the defense in tough situations via turnovers and the inability to control the clock.
The one legitimate gripe fans have with the defense is the unit's inability to consistently force turnovers. Coming into Sunday's game, the Redskins ranked in the bottom half of the league in takeaways. Against the 49ers, the defense was able to force one fumble but could have had more.
In the first quarter, Ryan Kerrigan had a free run at Alex Smith during a play in which Smith's attention was focused downfield. Kerrigan sacked Smith with a vicious hit but didn't make any effort to knock the ball away from the preoccupied quarterback. He missed the opportunity to cause a significant shift in momentum.
I'm not blaming Kerrigan for making a poor play, but the Redskins defenders need to think more opportunistically about forcing turnovers.
In recent weeks, Redskins defensive backs have dropped passes that should have been interceptions, and linebackers have hit guys but failed to jar the ball loose.
The Redskins defense is great. If they want to be elite, they'll have to figure out how to force more turnovers.
Brandon Banks fair catch at the three yard line left many fans scratching their heads.
Arguably the most famous moment of former Redskin Michael Westbrook's career occurred in a 1997 game against the New York Giants. Westbrook, who was having a stellar game, took off his helmet to argue a call and was given an automatic 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. The penalty moved Washington out of field goal range, and the game ended in a tie.
I sometimes think Westbrook's actions put a hex on the Redskins franchise that causes Washington players to repeatedly do asinine things on the football field. Stupid plays, mostly in the form of penalties and careless turnovers, have hampered the franchise since the 1990s.
On Sunday, the players continued this trend.
In the first quarter, Brandon Banks, who was supposed to a guy Washington could rely on for explosive plays, inexplicably called for a fair catch on the 3-yard line instead of letting the ball bounce into the end zone for a touch back.
In the second quarter, Trent Williams committed a unnecessary roughness penalty, killing the momentum on what looked to be a promising drive.
In the third quarter, Terrence Austin got flagged for an illegal crackback, setting back another potential drive with a 15-yard penalty.
Austin then completed his woeful performance in the fourth quarter by fumbling the ball—he was not hit particularly hard on the play, just failed to protect the ball in a critical situation.
When you're working with limited talent, eliminating mental mistakes is imperative.
The Redskins can't afford to beat themselves by giving up field position through penalties and poor special teams play. They need every advantage they can get.
Well-coached teams tend to minimize mental mistakes. It's infuriating that Mike Shanahan has been unable to get his team to play smarter.