Walking to FedEx Field on Sunday afternoon — past the tailgaters with smoky grills, past the beanbag toss boards painted burgundy and gold or blue and silver, past the clusters of fans commingling in Washington and Dallas jerseys — you would think all is well if you didn’t know better.
One fan waved a broom at passers-by in the visitors’ colors and pointed at a sign: “Sweep the Cowboys!” Another walked around hawking T-shirts that proclaimed Dallas “stinks” and quarterback Tony Romo is a slur that rhymes with his name. But it was a very pleasant scene, almost surreal, aided by weather so mild that some fans wore short-sleeves.
Then the game started. Long before it was over, mercifully, at 44-17, reality set in and 50 percent of the crowd checked out.
Washington fans were numb by halftime and comatose by the end. They didn’t have enough energy to boo — and they were outnumbered to boot — by the time the lead increased from 10 points midway through the fourth quarter to 27 points with about two minutes left.
Fittingly for this franchise, there were flashes that might suggest success isn’t far off.
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There was DeSean Jackson taking a simple receiver screen 69 yards for a touchdown and a 7-3 lead. There was halfback Roy Helu gaining 42 yard on the ground and 41 yards through the air. There was Pierre Garcon with a catch-and-run of 47 yards as Washington drove from its own 10-yard line to the Cowboys’ 7-yard line.
But quarterback Robert Griffin III threw an interception from the Cowboys’ 7. Most of Helu’s yardage came in garbage time. And Jackson had just one other reception for 17 yards.
Meanwhile, the defense gave up 294 yards of offense in the first half, playing as if they — like the fans — also were anesthetized by 24 losses (en route to 25) the last two seasons.
No one can blame the Washington fan base if it’s dazed at this point. The back-to-back campaigns of 9-7 and 8-8 in 2007 and 2008 never looked better. Since then, aside from the aberrant 10-6 record in 2012 season, losses have numbered 12, 10, 11, 13 and 12.
Sometimes you wonder if the beatings have altered players’ sense of the wretchedness they’re part of.
“We have a chance to do something special here,” Griffin said after completing 27 of 41 passes for 336 yards with two interceptions and a fumble returned for a short touchdown. “I think great things are ahead here — not only for this team, but for this city and for these fans who deserve better.”
Or maybe fans are getting what they deserve.
Maybe they’re dazed and confused because their blind allegiance hasn’t resulted in more winning seasons. The lack of success has been disorienting for those who remember the glory years and can’t believe the era occurred so long ago.
But the truth is the franchise is no better off now than it was when Mike Shanahan was hired. At least he had a Super Bowl pedigree. Now Washington has question marks in his old office and all over the roster.
Surely coach Jay Gruden knows it as well as anyone, but he declined to discuss the obvious in detail right after the game.
“We have to face a lot of things,” he said. “Luckily we have some picks in the draft this year that are pretty high and it starts there with free agency and evaluation our talent. … I’m not going to throw anybody under the bus and saw we need to upgrade this, this, this, right now.”
The needs are clear: secondary, offensive line, linebackers … and defensive coordinator. Safety Ryan Clark continued to passionately support Jim Haslett, but the results dictate a change. The Cowboys scored two 65-yard touchdowns and had an 80-yarder called back.
Fans sat through this debacle of a season finale, not in disbelief but not all the way there, either. Mustering up a few half-hearted cheers was difficult; the game seemed out of reach even when Washington closed to 27-17 with 6:45 left.
Dallas got the ball and drove for a field goal. At one point during the drive, the scoreboard and cheerleaders urged the crowd to make noise. But it was useless. It was like Washington fans were detached from what was happening — or knew what would come next.
By the time Joseph Randle broke one tackle and raced 65 yards to create the final margin with 1:40 left, there were few burgundy jerseys in the stands. Those fans had long since departed.
They walked away in a fog, wondering what has happened to their team.
More importantly, when will it end?