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

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

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.

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.

Reversing a culture of losing and reinvigorating a deflated fan base is often cited as one of the most difficult tasks in professional sports. It takes a special type of talent to turn around a franchise mired in self-immolating tendencies. Enter Griffin, the phenomenally talented rookie known as RG3, whose show-stopping style of play and appealing personality have given Redskins' fans something they've lacked for quite some time: real hope for the future. Like fellow rookie quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, Griffin has proved that in today's NFL, a rookie play caller can thrive from the get-go. What separates Griffin from his peers is that he possesses real cultural star potential as well. Off the football field, he carries himself with an aura of confidence that belies his young age and relative lack of experience. That mentality has allowed Griffin's name to sell more replica jerseys in a single season than any other NFL player over the past six years. It's also trickled down to many of his teammates, who are more than willing to admit that Griffin is the squad's leader, the player from whom everyone else takes their cues.

On the football field, Griffin has the potential to redefine what an NFL quarterback can be. He is not the first mobile quarterback to put his hands under center, but few, if any, of his predecessors in this category combined world-class speed with exceptional downfield passing skills the way Griffin does. He leads all NFL quarterbacks in rushing yards and ranks among the top five in quarterback rating. Former all-pro quarterback Steve Young has said Griffin has the chance to become football's "ultimate weapon," because defenses cannot hope to contain a player who is equally adept at attacking with his legs or his arm. Such praise does not come across as hyperbole, considering Griffin has shown incredible poise and a quickness to learn as a rookie. It all adds up to Griffin being one the most exciting and newsworthy young athletes to enter the national sports dialogue in years, balancing equally impressive athletic ability and charisma without breaking a sweat .

Of course, Mike Shanahan deserves some of the credit for the Redskins' success, too. At the start of the season, the ornery taskmaster of a coach designed an offense that leverages Griffin's unique talents and puts his star in a position to succeed week after week. And when Griffin went down with an injury against the Baltimore Ravens, Shanahan and his son Kyle, the Redskins' offensive coordinator, retooled the offense to accommodate the strengths and limitations of back-up rookie quarterback Kirk Cousins. The Redskins won that critical game against the Cleveland Browns without their biggest star and kept their playoff hopes alive in the process. That type of improvisation is why Shanahan deserves serious consideration for coach of the year.

But Griffin is still the primary reason why the Redskins are once again relevant to fans inside and outside of the nation's capital. His presence gives the team not just hope for this year but for the future. There's a growing sense in D.C. that with Griffin under center, the Redskins could once again be perennial contenders.

It's taken the rookie's outsized talent and charisma to change the culture of the Redskins and restore the franchise of Sammy Baugh and Doug Williams to some level of glory. In this sense, it doesn't matter if the Redskins beat the Seattle Seahawks in the first round of the playoffs. For the foreseeable future, the team has already won.