- A few times a year, I use this space to talk about the D.C. sports scene that extends beyond the confines of Redskins Park and the asphalt of FedEx Field. As always, I lead with the recognition that not everyone who bleeds burgundy and gold lends their passion to the other pro teams in the nation’s capital. Whether you are Skins/Nats/Wiz/Caps or some other combination of affiliations, the truth is that the Redskins—and their fans—reap the benefits when the other D.C. teams are performing well. If you are an out-of-town Redskins fan that pledges allegiance to out-of-town teams in the other leagues, chances are you haven’t felt the same pain as those of us that pull hard for all teams in the district. If you are an in-town Redskins fan from out-of-town, you are at least familiar with that pain. As long as we are being clear: this isn’t made-up, imagined sports pain. Washington has been on the schneid as a sports town for quite some time, with the Redskins doing their fair share to maintain that status.
- Twenty seasons without an appearance in the conference finals for a city with at least three major pro sports (football, baseball, basketball, hockey) was quite a drought. It put D.C. squarely in the crosshairs for every barfly in the country who was taking aim at a fellow fan pulling for a Washington team. The Redskins, of course, have made the playoffs in recent seasons, but have not actually won a playoff game since 2005, when they won a Wild Card round game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That stands as the 9th-longest playoff winless streak in the NFL (if we are feeling good about Wikipedia today, that is). This has been painful for a football city that was downright dominant for a decade—even longer—and hosted multiple championship parades in most of our lifetimes. It’s a testament to how good the Redskins were and how bad they have been that the life experiences of multiple generations of fans have been so drastically different. It also never went unnoticed that the Dan Snyder Era has largely overlapped the drought era (for the entire city).
- If you don’t live around the D.C.-metro area, it is hard to explain how one team’s misfortunes bleed into the other teams’ stories. At some point, it all started to blend together into a giant shame spiral. I have to hand it to my fellow D.C. fan brethren—we have dug quite the foxhole, and we have stuck together inside it throughout. Last October, the chatter at Redskins tailgates was as much about the Nationals playoff chances against the Cubs in the NL Divisional Series as it was about the game inside FedEx. At the Redskins draft party we helped throw in Bethesda, the first game of the Caps/Penguins series created a knot in our stomachs that not even Da’Ron Payne could fix. This may have always been the case, but I don’t think so. Not like this. At some point, the fates of each individual D.C. team began to weave their way into the psyche of the entire sports town. The prolonged absence of any one squad from postseason bliss exacerbated the impact of the same prolonged absences of the other squads. If you have sat in the stands for a playoff game over the last couple seasons for the Caps, Nats or Wiz, then you know exactly what I am talking about.
- This brings me to the recent victory we witnessed when the Capitals vanquished their biggest postseason rival to advance to the NHL’s Eastern Conference Finals. Watching a D.C. team take down a villainous foe like the Penguins...on the road...in overtime...to win a playoff series meant so much more...than it should have. I mean, the Caps are now only two-for-eleven in terms of playoff series against Pittsburgh. We have a lifetime’s worth of work to do to bring that number back into some kind of respectable range, though that doesn’t matter at all at the moment. What matters is that when that game went final, I was on my knees in front of my television, and I was thinking about a WHOLE lot more than hockey. I was feeling something I had not felt in decades. I was experiencing a joy that I—as a D.C. sports fan—have not known for roughly half my life (the most recent half). As happy as I was for the Caps, it was my broader circle of friends that have endured this D.C. postseason-success drought with me that I immediately thought of and with whom I immediately began communicating.
- My first thought was of the Nationals, who have been as close as the Caps in recent seasons to getting to a conference championship game. Wearing my Sean Taylor jersey while watching things unravel last year against Chicago with none other than our hero Max Scherzer on the mound was about as tough as it gets, but it was made tougher because when the Nats failed, the city was immediately back to the drawing board to find a team that could advance. So many of us have put our hopes in the Redskins because in football, it has been more common for teams to rise up from middling performances the year prior and succeed in the postseason. There are no best-of-five or best-of-seven series in the NFL. You show up and the winner that day advances. If you make the playoffs in the NFL—and have a relatively healthy roster—your chances of advancing in a win-or-go-home format at least feel better than being a prohibitive favorite in a seven-game series. The Nationals are a damn good baseball team, and are yet again a legit World Series contender. I understand that a hockey team’s success doesn’t count for any runs or wins in a baseball playoff series, but try telling this city that today. Try telling that to the tens of thousands of Nats fans that were digesting their own stomachs yet again last fall, hoping against hope that their team would end the ridiculous streak of misery in this sports town. It shouldn’t go without saying that as I watch regular season Nats games these days, the stands—both home and away—have been filled with Caps jerseys. This just underlines the point I am trying to make about this sports town really banding together. No, it is not uncommon to see such things in major cities around the country, but I don’t know how many away hockey jerseys they are used to seeing in Arizona for home baseball games.
- How does this all impact the Redskins and our tight-knit group of fans? To some degree, those of you who may be rolling your eyes, thinking it doesn’t matter at all might be right. I would respectfully disagree, however. The general vibe in this town has been poisoned by the lack of success. That poisoning has trickled its way into the bellies of at least some players—at least a few that were on the field a couple seasons ago when all the Redskinshad to do was let the Giants let Washington win. As optimistic as we can be before any given game these days, it is never without the knowledge that the next team that wins it all will be the first to do so in almost 30 years. Seeing one or more of the other teams in town succeed in the postseason has a soothing effect on the fanbase in my opinion. I think it would be fair to suggest most of my friends would call a Redskins playoff run the most satisfying of all possible playoff runs, but the pressure placed on the Skins these days from those same people is at least slightly muted today. If you are out there saying that things off the football field don’t have any bearing on that, you are simply mistaken. The Redskins have excelled at allowing off-the-field “stuff” to cloud their Sundays for YEARS. I know that wins on the ice or the diamond or the hardwood don’t make things between the whistles on the gridiron easier, but if you believe—as I do—that there is something real to the manner in which the “vibe” in town contributes to the result on the field, then the Caps have absolutely helped every other D.C. sports team in the past week. Any time you see something happen that has felt—at times—to be impossible helps convince you that other things that once seemed incredibly unlikely or impossible could actually go your way. To all my fellow Caps, Nats, Wiz fans that also bleed burgundy and gold, something does feel different, and you don’t have to be a hockey purist to feel it. (Thanks to those of you who stuck this out with me despite your allegiance(s) to other teams in the other sports.)
The D.C. sports scene has come alive this spring, and the Redskins are enjoying the benefits.