Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 28, 2013

For NFL Fans In DC, No Time To Be Thankful

All across the land, football is as much a part of Thanksgiving as dry turkey.  It is a tradition that far predates the recent bizarre and masochistic ritual of standing outdoors in subfreezing temperatures for hours in order to be one of the first customers at the Best Buy store in places like Newington, New Hampshire.  The Detroit Lions have hosted a Thanksgiving Day NFL contest since 1934, a string broken only by a hiatus during World War II.  In 1966 the Dallas Cowboys became the permanent host of a second Thanksgiving game.  Beginning eight years ago the league that never misses a marketing opportunity added a third game to keep fans glued to their flat screens right into the evening.

This year for the first time in a decade the Lions sent their fans home from Ford Field happy.  After falling behind early they scored 37 unanswered points to demolish the Green Bay Packers 40-10.  Coach Mike McCarthy’s Packers have been in free-fall since losing quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a broken collarbone in early November, posting a record of 0-4-1 while starting three different substitute play callers.  But for long-suffering fans in Detroit a win is a win.  After losing ten straight Thanksgiving Day games, often by embarrassing scores and always on national television, the Lions’ win moved them back atop the NFC Central Division.  In a city still struggling through bankruptcy, hope is renewed and football fans have good reason to be thankful.

While only six teams play on Thanksgiving Day, it’s a time when fans of all 32 NFL franchises take a moment to assess their team’s season.  The start and stop part of the NFL schedule is finally over.  After anywhere from two to six teams having the weekend off starting in Week Four, the bye part of the schedule is done.  By next Monday night all teams will have played this weekend and all will have just four games remaining, the final quarter of the regular season schedule.

While that assessment in Detroit is better than fans dared hope, the Lions are not the only team that has been a pleasant surprise.  Last year the Kansas City franchise won just two games, and dealt with the trauma of having a player finish the back-end of a murder-suicide in the parking lot of the team’s practice facility as the head coach and other personnel looked on.  This year, with a new coach and general manager, Kansas City is 9-2 and locked in a struggle with the Denver Broncos for supremacy in the AFC West.  A soft early schedule certainly helped, and Kansas City’s ranking in any number of statistical categories belies the team’s record, but once again, wins are wins.  Even if they can’t keep pace with Denver over the final month, going into this weekend a squad that won just twice all last year is four games in front of their closest competitor for a Wild Card slot.

There is similar joy among fans in the Arizona desert, where the Cardinals are 7-4 and still very much part of the playoff conversation.  Last year Arizona finished 5-11, dead last in the NFC West.  New head coach Bruce Arians, who helped turn Indianapolis from a last place team to a playoff participant while filling in for the leukemia-stricken Chuck Pagano last season, is working his magic once again.

Of course for every franchise that can boast a fan base that is happy and eager for the playoffs to start, there is one whose fans know that this season is already lost.  Last year the Houston Texans were champions of the AFC South for the second season in a row.  This season, with an anemic offense and a quarterback controversy Houston is 2-9, and facing a difficult date with the Patriots this weekend.  That sad record is matched by the Atlanta Falcons, who this time last year were on their way to a 13-3 record and the number one seed in the NFC.

Then there is the team that I grew up rooting for on Sunday afternoons.  The Washington franchise actually has a better record than Houston and Atlanta, or Jacksonville and Minnesota for that matter.  But three consecutive losses including a dismantling by the 49ers last Monday night have dropped Washington to 3-8 and ended any hopes for the playoffs.  And while they may not have the NFL’s worst record, they are working hard to establish themselves as the league’s most dysfunctional franchise.

Last year Washington was 3-6 going into the team’s bye week.  But while many fans felt the season was likely lost, the disappointment was tempered by hope for the future.  Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III was obviously still adapting to the NFL, and knowledgeable fans realized that in order to move up in the draft so they could select Griffin with the second overall pick the team had been forced to trade away its picks in the first two rounds, thus limiting their ability to draft a supporting cast.  Plus the team was dealing with the first year of a two-season, $36 million salary cap penalty imposed by the NFL for failing to comply with the “gentlemen’s agreement” among the NFL’s billionaire owners on how contracts would be structured during the 2010 season, which was played without a salary cap.  That in turn hampered Washington’s ability to build a team through free agency.

But then RG3 led Washington on an improbable seven-game winning streak to end the season.  Those seven wins included five over NFC East opponents, and Washington claimed the division crown with a 10-6 victory over Dallas on the regular season’s final Sunday.  Even after a loss to Seattle in the first round of the playoffs which included an obviously serious injury to Griffin, fans were looking forward to this season in D.C.

The truth is that the unlikely winning streak over the final two months of the 2012 regular season disguised some unpleasant realities that have now become glaringly obvious.  Like the fact that trading not just those picks in the 2012 draft, but the team’s number one pick in both 2013 and 2014 makes it all but impossible to build through the draft.  Or the fact that $36 million is still real money and the salary cap penalty has been crippling.  There is also the inescapable reality that Washington’s defense is, in a word, awful.  The team ranks 27th in passing yards allowed, 28th in total yards allowed, and 31st in points allowed.  Finally it is now clear that last year’s injury to RG3 was, if anything, worse than originally reported.  In retrospect he should have been on the sidelines regaining strength and mobility early this season, rather than on the field displaying a lack of both.

With the playoffs out of reach and a head coach finishing the fourth year of a five-year contract, the focus in D.C. has quickly turned to matters off the field.  Players are being asked to weigh in on whether Mike Shanahan should remain as head coach, with one local columnist opining that the team has quit on him.  Meanwhile just a year after he was the toast of the town, Robert Griffin III is finding out how quickly things can turn in our nation’s capital.  Today a well-respected local reporter offered her recommendation that Griffin should be benched; and much of the media chatter since Monday night’s debacle has been devoted to finding some significance in the insignificant act of Griffin’s father visiting him in the locker room after the game.  Fans of the franchise must surely feel like it was only yesterday when things were looking so very, very promising.  But in Washington, football fans have come to know that promise is always an illusion.

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