The Shocking Rise (and Even More Shocking Fall) of the Redskins

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Appreciating just how far Robert Griffin III has taken Washington this season means understanding just how unexpectedly bad the once-proud team had become.

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AP / Evan Vucci

Some professional sports teams seem destined to matter regardless of circumstance. The Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Cubs, and Dallas Cowboys, are a few examples of teams that will always be relevant, albeit for very different reasons. In the 1990s, it seemed as if the Washington Redskins were one of those franchises. But then the years of mismanagement and failure sunk the franchise to an almost unfathomable level of irrelevancy—the recovery from which would take longer than football fans in the nation's capital could have ever imagined.

That recovery seems to be here, thanks to Robert Griffin III and Mike Shanahan.

Last Sunday, the Redskins defeated their archrivals, the Dallas Cowboys, to claim their first division title since 1999 and qualify for the playoffs for only the fourth time in 20 seasons. Redskins historian Mike Richman calls the win "the most significant victory" the team has experienced since their Super Bowl championship at the end of the 1991-92 season. More importantly, not since the 1990s has the franchise seemed on the cusp of becoming an NFL powerhouse. This sudden and unexpected turn of events has left previously miserable Redskins fans grateful for the day that Mike Shanahan chose RG3 to be the new face of this once-great franchise.

To comprehend just how far the Redskins had fallen, it's important to understand where they used to stand. Once upon a time, the Redskins were a model of professional competence. From 1971 through 1993, the 'Skins recorded 18 winning seasons, went to five Super Bowls, and won three Lombardi trophies. They became just the second franchise in the Super Bowl era to have two different players win the NFL MVP award in consecutive seasons. Coach Joe Gibbs demonstrated a certain brand of offensive genius by winning three Super Bowls with three different starting quarterbacks, none of whom are in the Hall of Fame. He retired in 1992 with a higher playoff winning percentage than any of his more celebrated peers. (Playoff winning percentages in 1992, the year Gibbs retired: Gibbs [.762], Bill Parcels [.727], Bill Walsh [.714], Mike Ditka [.500]). The team played at a stadium known as one of the most raucous environments in professional football, where diehard fans made the bleachers bounce and sang "Hail to the Redskins" after every touchdown. An aura of on-field excellence hung over the franchise.

Sports is filled with lovable losers, from the Cubs to the Lions. But there was nothing lovable about the way the Redskins kept losing.

But starting in 1994 that aura dissolved, leaving in its place the unmistakable stench of professional incompetence. That year, the team cut ties to the Gibbs era for good by firing head coach Richie Petitbon, who had served as Gibbs's defensive coordinator. Under coach Norv Turner, the Redskins became better known for off-the-field drama and quarterback controversies than on-the-field success, and new owner Dan Snyder reset the tone for what the franchise stood for by unceremoniously renaming Jack Kent Cooke stadium, the last remaining testament to the beloved former owner, FedEx Field in exchange for millions of dollars. Under Snyder's stewardship, the team spent recklessly on big-name free agents but couldn't translate high profile acquisitions into success. Washington became a place where the careers of good coaches and players went to die.

The constant turmoil and non-stop losing took its toll on a once-proud fan base. Professional sports is filled with lovable losers, from the Chicago Cubs to the Detroit Lions—and some fans even embrace rooting for a team that seems destined for annual futility. For 86 years, there was an understated honor that came with supporting the Boston Red Sox. But no such honor was ever associated with the Redskins, because there was nothing noble about the way Washington kept losing. This was a wealthy franchise with the resources to win but not the wherewithal, and the greatest ignominy suffered by Redskins fans is that they had to watch their team, which during its greatest years carried an air of class in addition to skill, morph into a national joke. The team became a model of dysfunction and disappeared from the broader sports consciousness. Gibbs returned as coach in 2004, and the Redskins made the playoffs twice but never turned into a credible championship contender. When Jim Zorn, Gibbs's replacement, incorrectly referred to the team's colors as black and maroon, Redskins fans knew more dysfunction and embarrassment lay ahead.

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Kevin Craft is a writer based in Arlington, Virginia. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, and Arlington Magazine.

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