- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 2004

It seems as if the news Joe Gibbs was coming back to coach the Washington Redskins happened in another century, let alone another year. But it happened in 2004, the same calendar year we closed yesterday, with the Redskins on the verge of finishing with the same record they did under Steve Spurrier in 2003: 5-11.

Joe Gibbs didn’t really come back this year, did he?

Washington’s sporting slump is starting to reach ridiculous proportions. If we weren’t so unlovable as the nation’s capital, Washington actually might be able to replace Boston as the city most deserving of the country’s sympathy.

Think about it. There has been no bigger sports story in this town since the Redskins were sold to the Paul Bunyan of the Potomac, Danny “Ax” Snyder, than the return of Gibbs, who led the Redskins to three Super Bowl titles, after 12 years away from the game.

Gibbs’ return was like some sort of religious experience, with a surreal euphoria gripping the town. People walked around with that “pinch me” attitude.

Now here it is, with the final game of the NFL regular season tomorrow against the Minnesota Vikings at FedEx Field, and people are walking around with that “put me out of my misery” attitude.

We thought Joe Gibbs could fall out of bed and coach the Redskins to a better record than Spurrier did last year. Now all Redskin fans want to do is crawl into bed and pull the covers over their heads. Tell me everyone involved — the players, the fans, the coaches and Ax Snyder himself — would just as soon not play tomorrow, letting the season end with last week’s embarrassing loss in Dallas. Get it over with and move on.

That’s what happened to the co-biggest sports story of 2004 in Washington. It turned from a dream into a nightmare.

The city’s other sports story of the year — the return of Major League Baseball after a 33-year absence — nearly took the same route, only we didn’t have to wait 12 months to go from delirium to despair. It nearly went that same direction in a matter of weeks, from the day Mini-Mayor declared the Montreal Expos would relocate to Washington to the anxiety created when it seemed Queen Linda would kill the whole deal. The political battle over ballpark financing left everyone so numb that the glow of baseball’s return had been diminished — particularly by the ugly racial divisions mined by Queen Linda and ballpark opponents for their own purposes.

Both of those stories could wind up being the biggest tales we cover in 2005 as well, unless the Wizards actually bring playoff basketball back to Washington. And not just a one-and-done, first-round appearance, either. The Wizards need to pull a 1998 Washington Capitals, getting the right draws in a weak conference in a weak year to advance deep into the playoffs. That would be huge and, of course, very Wizards-like, for the franchise finally to show signs of life while the NBA is being lowered into a grave.

That said, Gibbs and baseball should dominate the headlines around here in 2005. Baseball’s very existence makes it a big story. Every home game should be an event, win or lose, even if RFK is hardly a friendly confine or if the only competitive goal for the Washington Nationals is to stay out of the National League East cellar. Pedro comes to town with the Mets. The Giant Head comes to town with the Giants. These are moments a generation of sports fans never have seen in Washington. Big story in 2004 and a big story in 2005.

Gibbs and the Redskins should be big as well, depending on the direction the team takes next season (and it will be interesting to watch the battle for media time and space between the Redskins and the Nationals). Dramatic improvement will bring back the euphoria. Little or no change — or, if it is possible, an even worse performance — and everyone will be walking around here with the “what do we do now?” attitude. Because if Joe Gibbs fails, this sports town might finally reach a level of despair worthy of national pity.

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