- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 29, 2009

They are former Washington Redskins with access to microphones, cameras and keyboards, strong in numbers and opinions. Call them the Redskins Alumni and Nonstop Talkers (RANT). And like the fans of the team for which they played, they are not very happy these days.

“When I see people giving away an opportunity, it ticks me off,” former running back and special teams ace Brian Mitchell said, although he didn’t say “giving” and “ticks.”

It would be hard to find another NFL club with so many of its former stars expressing themselves from such close range. “A lot of the players love the area and want to stay involved,” Mr. Mitchell said.

Such involvement entails offering commentary and criticism that spans the analytical to the emotional, the personal to the general — volleys of words fired at owner Dan Snyder, vice-president of football operations Vinny Cerrato, coach Jim Zorn, the players and the organization as a whole.

Only the Redskins Marching Band seems to have been spared, although you never know.

Former Pro Bowl linebacker LaVar Arrington, perhaps the most unrelenting of the critics, on his daily radio show on WJFK 106.7-FM “The Fan” compared the Redskins to a house “occupied by someone before them, but they’re leaving their soiled linens behind.” As if that image wasn’t vivid enough, Mr. Arrington added: “They’re using the same soap. Not liquid soap, the same bar of soap.”

Now that he no longer hits people for a living, Mr. Arrington attacks with metaphors. During the same broadcast, he said, “I liken this team to, they’re digging for oil, with gardening shovels. I think they’re trying to find gold, trying to find oil with hand shovels.”

Regardless of what natural resource they might be digging for, the reactions of the current players seem to fall into two categories — wide receiver Antwaan Randle-El’s grudging acceptance (“They played the game”) and offensive tackle Mike Williams’ indifference (“I don’t pay any attention to it”).

A lot of folks lately have been paying attention to John Riggins, the Hall of Fame running back, and his series of YouTube videos criticizing the Redskins. By far the most popular one has Mr. Riggins seated on a woodpile and delivering a personal message to Mr. Cerrato, who is most responsible for assembling the current roster.

“Vinny, this is a mess,” Mr. Riggins intones in his typically laconic style. “You’ve got no offensive linemen. That’s your problem. You’ve got wide receivers that don’t appear to be able to play. Your head coach has basically been castrated by the guy you work for. Oh, yeah. There’s a major mess here. … Clearly, this is basically a problem created by everything you’ve done.”

Mr. Riggins in the video does not single out Mr. Snyder, a favorite target, by name (he saves that for another). But he does zero in on Mr. Zorn, who according to Mr. Cerrato will remain the coach for the rest of the season. “Jim, you are not a head football coach in the NFL,” Mr. Riggins says. “High school? Definitely. You can coach my son in high school, anytime. Ankle biters, for sure.”

Click here to view the John Riggins video

As of Wednesday, the video had nearly 155,000 views. A video of Mr. Riggins’ famous touchdown run in Super Bowl XVII from the 1980s glory days had about 38,000.

Biting the Redskins, and not on the ankles, has become a sport unto itself. Not that the team hasn’t deserved it; their 2-5 record is even worse than it looks. Washington lost to three previously winless teams and looked bad in close victories over two others. Perhaps never before has an NFL team done so little against such meager competition.

Even former play-by-play men can’t hold back. Frank Herzog, fired in 2004 amid much fan protest after calling nearly 500 consecutive games, joined Mr. Riggins for a special, hourlong program on WTOP radio last week to discuss the Redskins’ troubles. It was a notable departure from the station’s all-news format.

“For the first time in five years, I have agreed to sit down and talk on the air about the Redskins,” Mr. Herzog said. “I find the play of this team insulting to the tradition I was privileged to be part of. … The Washington Redskins football team is in the worst shape we’ve seen in the modern era of pro football.”

Things are so bad, the Redskins have managed to cloud Joe Theismann’s usually sunny view of life. After the loss two Sundays ago to Kansas City, then 0-5, the loquacious ex-quarterback said on his weekly ESPN 980 radio show, “We’ve seen a lot of inadequate football out of the Washington Redskins. I do believe it reached a new low. Let’s put it this way: You hope [it] was the low point for this football team. … I mean, it was painful to really, really watch what I saw out of the Washington Redskins’ offense. And a change has been made.”

That change was taking away Mr. Zorn’s play-calling responsibilities and handing them to 67-year-old Sherm Lewis, who was hired as a “consultant” less than a month ago and had not coached since 2004.

What about it, Joe?

“That is absolutely the worst thing this organization can do,” Mr. Theismann said on the air before the Redskins lost again, this time to Philadelphia on Monday.

Off the air, Mr. Theismann said he is “not ripping” his old team. He said he chooses a more even-handed approach than those who “go after everybody and everything that is Redskins,” naming Mr. Arrington and Mr. Riggins in particular.

But Mr. Mitchell has been just as unsparing. He took Mr. Zorn apart on Comcast a few weeks ago with perhaps the most damning condemnation of all. “I see this man as being a little less than what Norv Turner was,” he said, referring to the ex-Redskins coach whose 50-60-1 record and dishrag persona frustrated fans for the better part of seven seasons.

On a subsequent program, Mr. Mitchell expanded his horizons. “You can do whatever you want with Jim Zorn,” he said, again on Comcast. “More fans think Vinny Cerrato is the problem more than anything else.”

Mr. Mitchell, by the way, was fired in June from his job at ESPN 980, which Snyder owns. He claims it was because he was too critical; the station said it was for economic reasons.

Mr. Arrington and Mr. Riggins use Twitter, too, to air their discontent, 140 characters at a time. Mr. Arrington last month composed a long, rambling rant against his old team, with whom he had a messy falling out over contract issues. He has Tweeted that Mr. Snyder tried to “destroy my name and reputation.” Yet he also professes to “love the Redskins.”

Mr. Riggins, whose candor, quirkiness and rebellious streak as a player drove coaches and anyone else in authority crazy, does not love the Redskins. He’s had a long and varied career in local media going back 25 years to his playing days, even when he lived in New York. (He moved to the Washington area 18 months ago). To him, this is strictly business.

“This is what I do,” Mr. Riggins said. “It’s what I chose to do after football. I still want to stay current. I’m like any entertainer. I want to stay on top of my craft.

“I’m a former employee,” he said. “I picked up my paycheck, I left. That was the company I used to work for. I have a certain level of expertise even though I wasn’t a student of the game. My expertise isn’t really football. It’s people. … I’m giving you the truth the way I see it. It’s repaying [the fans] who paid my way, who supported me by paying for those tickets.”

Mr. Mitchell left the Redskins for Philadelphia as a free agent in 2000, an unpleasant departure for all concerned, including the fans. But before Monday night’s game at FedEx Field, the Redskins inducted the NFL’s all-time kickoff and punt return leader into the team’s Ring of Fame, and he gave a gracious acceptance speech. “I don’t have any vendettas,” Mr. Mitchell said afterward.

“People write me off as bitter,” he said last week. “I was this, I was that. No. I’ve been vocal for the last six years, and now I’m finding out a lot of people are starting to come along right now.”

Mr. Mitchell, who last year had an on-air spat with Redskins running back Clinton Portis (Riggins also has singled out Portis), has a Super Bowl ring. It’s from the Redskins’ last championship season, in 1991. Mr. Riggins, Mr. Theismann, former tight end Doc Walker, who has done his share of venting, and ESPN’s Mark Schlereth, another frequent critic, also won Super Bowls playing for coach Joe Gibbs.

Clearly, these are different times.

“You could say the Redskins have never given us an excuse to be able to express our opinions the way we have,” Mr. Theismann said. “We’re part of a different generation of football player. We lived and played in the same community. We took a lot of pride in what we did. For those of us who have stayed here, it’s killing us.”

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