The day the Washington Redskins boarded a plane for Buffalo, where they open the preseason against the Bills on Thursday, the Nationals awoke to find themselves with the best record (67-43) in the majors. It's hard to think of the Redskins this summer without thinking of the Nats, and vice versa. In particular, it's hard not to wonder whether, in the not-too-distant future, the football team will be where the baseball team is now.
After all, if there's one thing we're reminded of in sports, over and over again, it's that the direction of franchises can change in an eye blink. One year, they're scuffing along below .500, exciting little interest — as the Nationals were last season — and the next they're not just the talk of the town, they're a national story.
Of course, the Nats are hardly an overnight success. It just seems that way. They've been building the core of this club since at least 2005, when they took Ryan Zimmerman with the fourth pick in the draft. This season, though, the pieces Mike Rizzo has assembled — Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Adam LaRoche et al. — have suddenly come together, morphed into a team that has legitimate World Series aspirations. Better still, this isn't just a team for today; it's a team for tomorrow, stocked with twentysomethings who, in many cases, haven't even hit their primes.
And again, just look at the impact this has had on baseball fans — and dormant baseball fans — across the region. It's as if they've been shot full of steroids. Attendance at Nationals Park is up nearly 20 percent, and the airwaves are filled with Nats chatter. It's entirely possible this is the best Washington baseball club since the early '30s, if not the mid-'20s. And to think just two years ago, the team lost 93 games and finished last in the National League East for the third straight season.
That's the beauty of it. It can happen that fast. The Capitals went through a similar transformation a few years back. For three seasons, George McPhee tore down and rebuilt, replacing older descending players with younger ascending ones like Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom and Mike Green. Then Bruce Boudreau took over as coach, and it was as if a fuse had been lit. Ovechkin became an international sensation, the Man Who Scores Goals While Lying On His Back, and the Caps became a club to be reckoned with (as well as one that regularly sold out its home games). They've yet to get past the second round of the playoffs, never mind win the Stanley Cup, but that doesn't mean they won't next year. Their time certainly hasn't run out.
The Redskins are different from the Nats and Caps. The Redskins are a central part of the D.C. conversation no matter how low they sink, even if they follow a four-win season with a six-win season and then a five-win season. It's just the way things are. But it's been 20 years since they were thought of as a premier franchise, and the fans are getting antsy. They see the San Francisco 49ers go from 6-10 doormats to 13-3 NFC finalists quicker than you can say, "Jim Harbaugh," and they ask: Why not us? When is it going to be our turn again?
The pressure's on Dan Snyder and Mike Shanahan to put together a genuine contender — before Redskins Nation really loses its temper and decides to Occupy FedEx Field. That's why the team went all-in on Robert Griffin III, giving up three first-round picks and a No. 2 to draft him. It was time to get serious at the quarterback position after two decades of diddling around. You don't win Super Bowls with the motley crew of QBs they've had.
In workouts, Griffin has done nothing but heighten expectations with his strong arm, fast feet and quick mind. But he's only one guy, even if he plays the most important position on the field. You look at the talent around him — the ordinary offensive line (that's already banged up), the unremarkable group of wideouts, the nothing-special committee of running backs — and you wonder: How far can the kid go with this kind of supporting cast? How far could anybody go with this kind of supporting cast?
Thursday night, we'll start finding out (not that preseason games are very revealing). And in the months ahead, we'll get even more of an idea of how much progress the club has made. It happened fast for the Nats and Caps; will the same be true for the Redskins? That's what Snyder and Shanahan are hoping for, at least — before the Washington sports market gets any more crowded.
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