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.
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.