Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 16, 2021

The Night Bad Teams Get To Play

Just as the most vibrant city has bad neighborhoods, it turns out that even our most successful and popular sports league has its very own backwater.  Any lingering doubt that Thursday Night Football is the NFL’s slum is now gone, given that this week’s contest features the New York Giants versus the Washington Football Team.  It’s a matchup of two teams that lost in Week 1 of the new NFL season, something that both squads have done with regularity in recent years. 

The Giants and Football Team are each starting what will likely be a fifth consecutive losing campaign, if the pundits and sabermetrics analysts prove correct.  Last year Washington finished 7-9, one game better than New York.  By the sheer luck of playing in the NFC East, a once-mighty division that has fallen on hard times, Washington’s losing record earned it a spot in the playoffs, since the league’s rules award that prize to the team with the best record in each of the eight divisions, no matter how bad that record is.  The technical term is “division winner,” but the second word seems inapt given the Football Team’s sub-.500 regular season performance. 

Those same rules dictated that despite being the only franchise in the postseason tournament with a losing record, Washington got to host a first-round game.  The Football Team’s opponent on Wild Card Weekend was Tampa Bay, and at one point in the contest the home squad cut the Buccaneers’ margin to just two.  Unfortunately for fans in the D.C. area that point was with slightly more than seventeen minutes remaining to play, and Tom Brady was the opposing quarterback.

Losing in the Wild Card round is familiar to Washington fans, as that has been their sole playoff experience, and a very rare one at that, since the 2005 season, when the Football Team managed to play exactly one week longer.  Washington hasn’t had a deeper playoff run since 1991, when Mark Rypien led a squad coached by Joe Gibbs to an NFL title over the Buffalo Bills, the team that shares with the Minnesota Vikings the unhappy record for most Super Bowl losses (four) without a victory. 

Although their team has played just one postseason game in almost a decade, fans of the Giants have enjoyed a somewhat happier thirty years since that Washington win.  New York’s made three trips to the NFL’s final matchup, losing to Baltimore in Super Bowl XXXV, but ending both the 2007 and 2011 seasons with dramatic and improbable victories over New England.

Those wins were engineered by Eli Manning, whose number 10 jersey will be retired by the Giants at a MetLife Stadium ceremony two Sundays from now.  Among his plethora of team records, he holds the franchise mark for most consecutive regular season starts by a quarterback at 210.  That’s third best on the NFL’s all-time list, which includes just a dozen names, and only Russell Wilson among active players, with more than 100 consecutive starts.

In a sport of highly specialized skills, no position is more important than the one Manning played, and the recent lean years for both the Giants and the Football Team can be traced directly to weakness at the quarterback spot.  In New York, fans have endured Manning’s decline due to age, followed by the slow development of 2019 first-round draft pick Daniel Jones.  Last weekend New York was soundly beaten at home by the visiting Broncos, in a game in which Jones continued his penchant for turnovers by losing a fumble deep in Denver territory while the score was still close. 

But as the playoff histories of the two franchises suggest, the quarterback malaise at FedEx Field is both deeper and more long-lasting.   When Ryan Fitzpatrick called his first play under center last weekend, he became the 31st quarterback to start a game for Washington in the three decades since Rypien’s heroics.  They have come, by trade or free agency or the draft.  And they have gone, due to injury or performance or disputes about money or disagreements with coaches.  More than a third started fewer than ten games in a Washington uniform.  Not surprisingly, given the lengthy list, only nine started more than seventeen contests, the equivalent of an NFL season.  That kind of turnover, at the position even a stranger to football, watching his or her very first game on television, would quickly discern is the most important on the field, will almost assuredly produce results like, well, like Washington’s for the past many seasons. 

Tonight’s starter is Taylor Heinicke, who also started that Wild Card contest against Tom Brady in January, and who stepped in for Fitzpatrick when Washington’s latest franchise signal-caller went down with an injury early in last Sunday’s game.  Heinicke bounced around the practice squads of four NFL and one XFL franchises after going undrafted out of Old Dominion in 2015 and was back in school when the Football Team called last December.  A month later he was starting a game in the NFL Playoffs.  It’s a lovely story, though highly unlikely to have a Cinderella finish.

Jones versus Heinicke, Giants versus Football Team, not exactly a must-see duel.  But it is Thursday night.  Since the schedule was adjusted in 2006 to include these games, they have been unloved and, for the NFL at least, largely unwatched.  The league’s own cable network is the primary television outlet, which suggests the whole reason for adding Thursday to the schedule was to attract viewers to NFL Network.  Players detest the games, since they mean a short week of practice and physical rehabilitation from the previous Sunday.  All that has been reflected in the schedule of Thursday contests, which feature a lot of matchups like this one.  Welcome to the NFL’s backwater.  If your team’s here, you know it has problems.

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