Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 29, 2010

Brand New Attitude, Same Old Result

With NFL training camps opening up, this is the time of year when Dan Snyder’s Washington Redskins normally rule the world of professional football. Kings of the off-season throughout Snyder’s eleven-year reign, the Redskins have typically generated all kinds of headlines during spring and summer. Whether it was an old coach being fired, a new one being hired, an assistant or three passing through the team’s revolving door, or, especially, the splashy signing of a coveted free agent, one has always been able to count on Snyder’s team to be making news and raising hopes among the DC fan base. Unfortunately, one could just as assuredly count on all of the off-season hype to be just so much hot air.

Once each new season began, the new coach would prove to be no better than the old one and the assistants would add nothing to the mix. As for the high-priced and much-acclaimed free agents? Has any franchise in any sport ever spent so much on so little? The NFL Players Association should consider naming its retirement fund after Snyder in recognition of his consistent willingness to provide giant nest eggs to aging former stars. Having taken Snyder’s money, they would proceed to turn in performances on the field that heavily emphasized “aging” and “former,” with very little to remind deflated fans that they had ever been “stars.”

Through the eleven years of Snyder’s ownership Washington has consistently underperformed. The team has compiled a losing regular season record of 80-96, making the playoffs just three times, in the only winning seasons of the Snyder era, and recording just two opening round playoff victories. Last season’s 4-12 mark under the guidance of the likeable but hopelessly overmatched Jim Zorn was, one would hope, rock bottom for this once proud franchise. That sad campaign was marked by the repeated sight of defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, 2009’s winner of the Dan Snyder free agent mega-millions game, kneeling on the sideline sucking on an oxygen hose at exactly the times when his presence on the field was most badly needed.

Which brings us to the current off-season, when fans of the Redskins no doubt prepared to once again have their hopes raised with promises of a glorious future immediately at hand thanks to one key move by the brilliant Snyder. But something strange has happened this year. It’s not as if Washington hasn’t been active in the off-season; if anything they have been even busier than usual. They open training camp with a new big-name head coach in Mike Shanahan, a former head coach as defensive coordinator in Jim Haslett, a 6-time All-Pro quarterback in Donovan McNabb, totally new personnel on special teams, and perhaps as much as half of last year’s roster replaced by new names. But what they haven’t been in this most recent off-season is loud. No one has proclaimed that any of the new faces, either in the huddle or on the sidelines, is going to magically transform this team into an immediate Super Bowl contender.

This restraint, this lack of hubris, is so unlike what Washington fans are used to that it has become a news story by itself. Earlier this week Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins was moved to see in the sudden onset of professionalism sure signs of hope for the Redskins future. It’s a sad commentary when a team’s management acting seriously and responsibly is deemed worthy of praise. Shouldn’t that be expected?

Or perhaps the real reason for praising the new attitude is that there isn’t really all that much else to praise. While the various off-season moves hold out some measure of promise for the future, each of them comes with serious questions.

Yes, Mike Shanahan has won two Super Bowls, but the last of those was in the same year that Dan Snyder bought the Redskins. And with quarterbacks not named John Elway, Shanahan’s post-season record is an uninspiring 1-4.

Yes, Donovan McNabb is a great quarterback who took the Philadelphia Eagles to the NFC Championship game five times and to the Super Bowl once. But he ended his career In Philadelphia with back-to-back blowout losses to division rival Dallas. The question on any given Sunday is which McNabb will show up; the Pro Bowl quarterback or the guy with the penchant for throwing at his receivers’ feet.

Yes, special teams were a problem last year, and no fan is really going to miss Shaun Suisham or Rock Cartwright or Antwaan Randle El. But Suisham’s replacement at place kicker, Graham Gano, has all of four NFL field goals. And the Redskins acknowledge that as camp starts they really have no idea who will take Cartwright and Randle El’s places returning kickoffs and punts.

Yes, the Redskins have three former Pro Bowl running backs in camp. Larry Johnson and Willie Parker were both signed to provide some competition and hopefully some incentive to Clinton Portis. But there is no position in the NFL with a shorter career than running back, thanks to the pounding runners take from linemen who often outweigh them by more than 100 pounds. All three of these guys are clearly on the back end of their careers. Maybe one of them will enjoy a renaissance. Maybe.

Finally, and most distressingly, yes, Albert Haynesworth is still with the team. Coming off a miserable 2009 season, but unhappy with the announced shift to a 3-4 defensive scheme, Haynesworth was absent from the team’s off-season workouts, and at one point demanded a trade. The Redskins should have cut their losses and granted him his wish. Instead he reported to camp today, and promptly failed his conditioning exam. Get the oxygen hoses ready.

Meanwhile Washington still plays in the toughest division in the NFL, with Dallas hungry to be the first team to play a Super Bowl at home next February, New York hungry to return to the big game, and Philadelphia hungry to prove it wasn’t a mistake to jettison McNabb. On reflection, I think Sally Jenkins had it right. We might as well sing hail to the Redskins new attitude. Because I don’t think we’re going to have a lot of reasons to sing hail to the Redskins new team.

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