Once a year, the NFL and its legions of fans remind us that the Washington Redskins barely exist. This message is delivered, painfully and publicly, on NFL Network's Pro Bowl Selection Show.
Most seasons, the Redskins are thrown a crumb or two — which is bad enough — but this season they were completely ignored. Not one player on their 53-man roster was deemed Hawaii worthy.
That doesn't mean, by the way, that London Fletcher, their indomitable inside linebacker, isn't completely deserving. Of course he is. Anybody who watched him closely this year, watched him bring down backs (a league-leading 163 tackles) and bat down passes, knows he belongs on the NFC squad. But that's the thing: Nobody is watching the Redskins very closely these days. They're just not relevant enough in NFL affairs. After two decades of losing, they're like a third world country.
Fletcher's supporters, and there are many, are upset that the sheer volume of his statistics didn't earn him a spot on the team. But when it comes to Pro Bowl voting, the sheer volume of losing usually outweighs the sheer volume of anything else. And the Redskins, in the past three seasons, have the third-worst record in the league (15-32).
As Brian Orakpo put it Wednesday: "You've gotta win games. That's the bottom line. That's just how the Pro Bowl is."
Remember Marvcus Patton? In the four years he was with the Redskins (1995 to '98), he led the league in tackles with 403. But the club never made the playoffs, and Patton never made the Pro Bowl. Fletcher is a better linebacker than he was, don't get me wrong, but I'm just saying. This kind of stuff happens all the time.
Besides, when the Redskins have been visible the past four seasons — in prime time (Sunday/Monday/Thursday) games — they've hardly distinguished themselves. In fact, they're 1-10 in those games, with a couple of truly horrific losses (45-12 to the Giants in 2009 and 59-28 to the Eagles last year). You can imagine the impression that leaves with voters. Prime time, after all, is the equivalent of a team's storefront window (and the way the Redskins have played, it's as if there's a sign hanging in the window that says, "Everything Must Go").
For too long, the NFL and its TV partners scheduled the Redskins for more nationally televised games than were probably warranted, given the franchise's declining fortunes. Consider: In 2008, on the heels of a 9-7 season, the club played four times in prime time — one on Thursday (in the league opener against the defending champion New York Giants), one on Monday (Pittsburgh) and two on Sunday (Dallas, Baltimore).
This year, though, the Redskins made only one prime-time appearance: a Monday night loss at Dallas in Week 3. Next year doesn't figure be any different, not with the team coming off another last-place finish. So the Redskins will continue to be invisible, or nearly so, and that will only hurt their players' Pro Bowl prospects. Just call them The Incredible Shrinking Redskins.
Look at Andre Carter. Two seasons ago he had 11 sacks for Washington ... and didn't go to the Pro Bowl. This season he had 10 (in 14 games) for New England ...and did get voted to the Pro Bowl. (Alas, an injury will keep him out of the game.) Does anybody really think Carter is a better player now than he was in 2009? It's just that his performance is being viewed through a different prism — the prism of a 12-3 Patriots team that, over the past decade, has been an NFL powerhouse. (It also helped to rack up four of those sacks in a Sunday night showdown against his club's archival, the New York Jets.)
The Redskins, it's clear, don't command a whole lot of respect around the league — and understandably so. The question is: Does this make Washington a less desirable destination for free agents? No franchise wants to be seen as a black hole, a place where you won't win, won't be recognized for individual achievements and will basically just disappear. But that pretty much describes the Redskins at the moment. They're there, but they aren't there.
Mike Shanahan was hired to change all this, to make the Redskins part of the NFL conversation again. But as his second season in Washington draws to a close, the team remains a league afterthought, a distant blip on the radar screen. Just ask London Fletcher and his 163 tackles.
"I try to play the game the right way," Fletcher said, "play with passion every single play." On plenty of clubs, that would be enough. It just isn't enough on the Redskins, not as far as the Pro Bowl is concerned.
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