I have little time for sports fans who moan about the shortcomings of their local teams. Only a strong sense of entitlement can lead fans to believe that just because they live in or near a city, that city’s sports teams should be good.
On the other hand, it’s been miserable being a D.C. area sports fan this month. Between December 3 and yesterday (when the highly-rated Washington Capitals broke an eight game losing streak) the Redskins, Wizards, and Caps were all winless (my EPL soccer team, Everton, is winless since October 30, but that’s another story). And the University of Maryland men’s basketball team lost both of its games againt competitive opposition.
This followed a summer in which the Washington Nationals once again finished last in their division and DC United (once the pride of Major League Soccer) had one of the worst seasons in MLS history.
Things are so bad that the Washington Post ran a front-page story about the troubles of the local sports team.
There was one bright spot this fall. Maryland’s football team bounced back from a horrible 2009 season by going 8-4. Reportedly, this was the second biggest improvement by any Division I football program this year.
Unfortunately, the University responded by firing head football coach Ralph Friedgen. Rumor has it that he may well be succeeded by Mke Leach, said to be the favorite of trustee Kevin Plank, the head of Under Armour, a sports apparel company. Leach was highly successful Texas Tech, but lost that job for confining a player in a shed because he was injured and couldn’t practice.
If Maryland hires Leach at the urging of Plank, it will become an early favorite to appear in ESPN’s next “30 for 30” series.
This leads me to the other defining characteristics of the local sports scene — turmoil and controversy. In addition to the Friedgen firing, this month we’ve been treated to the trading by the Wizards of former face-of-the-franchise Gilbert Arenas, the suspension by the Redskins of their highest paid player, Abert Haynesworth, and the benching by the Skins of their would-be face-of-the-franchise, quarterback Donovan McNabb.
Only the latter move generated much controversy, but oh what controversy it generated. The local sports media/talk radio scene was nearly unanimous in condemning the switch from McNabb to Rex Grossman in the most blistering terms. This was especially true, in general, of the African-American component. But then, it seems invariably to take offense when a white player takes the place of a black one — even if it’s only Kory Lichtensteiger replacing Derrick Dockery on the offensive line.
In my view McNabb has always been a little overrated — Rush Limbaugh was right to that extent. These days, he is significantly overrated. Last year, his passer rating was a so-so 92.9. His performance led the Eagles not just to trade him, but to send him to a division rival.
The quarterback McNabb replaced in Washington, Jason Campbell, had an 86.4 rating in 2009 playing in a broken offense. Playing in an equally broken offense this year, McNabb’s rating is 77.1. And in his last game, when for once the Redskins offense was blowing the opposition off the line of scrimmage (to the tune of more than 150 yards rushing in the first half), McNabb was only able to put 13 points on the board.
Under these circumstances, and with the Redskins eliminated from playoff contention, there plainly was nothing wrong with coach Mike Shanahan’s decision to bench McNabb and take a look at backup Rex Grossman, the starting quarterback for the Chicago Bears when they went to the Super Bowl in 2007.
Yet the Washington media/talk show scene reacted as if Shanahan had committed a crime. Some agreed with McNabb’s agent that Shanahan had “disrespected” McNabb — as if a failing veteran quarterback is entitled to keep his job; as if the Redskins are a bar in the wee hours of the morning, not a struggling sports team.
Most fans around here are singing a different tune today, after Grossman threw for 322 yards and four touchdowns against the Dallas Cowboys. The four touchdowns are the most by a Redskins quarterback since 2005 and the 30 points the Skins scored (in a 33-30 loss) are the most we have put up all year. That point total was reached without the benefit of a single Cowboy turnover all game. Grossman led the team on four long touchdown drives and threw for two two-point conversions.
Grossman’s outstanding performance in one game doesn’t mean he’s the answer to the Redskins’ quarterback problems. It may well be that the answer is playing on another NFL team or in college. It does mean, though, that Shanhan’s decision to take a look at Grossman was a reasonable one and that he should not have been vilified for making it.
Grossman’s success also adds to the perception that Washington sports commentators are, with a few exceptions, clueless about sports. The howls that accompanied McNabb’s benching stand in contrast to the lack of criticism (and, indeed, general acclaim) for a series of bad decisions — the outrageously generous new contract given an injured Arenas, the ridiculous contract given to long-time bad actor Haynesworth, the trading of high draft picks for McNabb.
No town is entitled to good teams. But a city like Washington should be able to attract sports commentators with a little more perspective, if any are out there.
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