- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 30, 2018

LANDOVER — It would be easy to blame the Redskins’ downfall this season on losing quarterback Alex Smith to a broken leg in mid-November. After all, with a 24-0 loss in Sunday’s finale to the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington lost six of its last seven games to finish at 7-9.

But 2018 was just the latest miserable year for a once-beloved franchise and its fans: Another season of losses on the field and controversies off, of missing the playoffs, of dropping attendance and declining television ratings.

The franchise that won three Super Bowls from 1983 to 1992 has just two playoff wins in the almost 20 years since Daniel Snyder bought the team in 1999.

That legacy of disappointment cannot be pinned on Smith’s injury.

As the team staggers into another offseason filled with uncertainty, the franchise isn’t just facing questions about starting quarterbacks and roster spots. From critical national writers and NFL commentators to dispirited former players on social media to frustrated local fans in the stands and sports bars throughout the region, people are asking:

What is wrong with the Redskins?

Call for accountability


That’s the Twitter hashtag that explodes across social media when the Redskins aren’t winning. And since the team has gone 59-84-1 during Bruce Allen’s tenure as team president, it’s never far from the topic of conversation.

According to Crimson Hexagon, a marketing company that analyzes social engagement, “#FireBruceAllen” was tweeted over 16,000 times in 2018. And that was before Sunday. More than 14,000 of those came in December, when the team parted ways with four marketing executives — including president of business operations Brian Lafemina — just months after their hiring.

Mr. Lafemina, one of a group of executives brought in to repair the Redskins’ frayed relationship with fans, had talked about the franchise “doing the right thing for 1,000 days.”

Instead, Mr. Lafemina, a veteran of NFL headquarters in New York, found himself on the losing end of a power struggle at Ashburn.

He didn’t last a year.

“I feel sorry for Washington fans the way this franchise is run,” ESPN analyst Max Kellerman said on “First Take” last week. “That’s why you haven’t won a Super Bowl since I was a little kid.”

John Newton, a 41-year-old Redskins fan from Richmond, even created a parody song that mentioned Allen’s dismissal. In the tune, which is set to Counting Crows’ “A Long December,” Newton sings: “Can’t remember the last time they made the playoffs. Would you fire Bruce Allen really fast?”

“People are [unhappy],” Newton said. “They’re not happy with what’s going on, and I guess I’m [unhappy] too. But you get to a point where you’re apathetic.”

Black Monday

The Monday after the final slate of regular season games is a day of change around the NFL. Always has been. Players clean out lockers, sometimes for the last time. Coaches are fired. Losing teams shed executives.

For the Redskins, the shakeup began before the season ended, with the departure of Mr. Lafemina and his team. But the sense around Ashburn is that the pink slips probably won’t extend to Mr. Allen or to coach Jay Gruden, who’ll be given a pass for a season in which his squad was decimated by injuries.

As for Mr. Allen, the bond between the men runs deep. The two have been working together for nearly 10 years and Mr. Snyder, a lifelong Redskins fan before purchasing the team, has stuck by Mr. Allen, who is the son of legendary Washington coach George Allen.

When a decision impacts the franchise’s future, Mr. Snyder tends to side with his top executive.

Sources told Washington Times columnist Thom Loverro that Mr. Lafemina, before he was let go, went to Mr. Allen and Mr. Snyder with feedback from corporate ticketholders upset with the Redskins’ decision to claim troubled linebacker Reuben Foster off waivers, days after his second domestic violence arrest of the year.

The Redskins decided to keep Foster. Mr. Lafemina was out a few weeks later.

Mr. Allen is also seen as an important asset in Washington’s pursuit of a new stadium. The team’s lease at FedEx Field expires in 2027, and Mr. Allen’s political connections could be useful in getting a new deal with either the District, Virginia or Maryland.

Litany of problems

In May 1999, a 34-year-old Dan Snyder was unanimously approved to take over the Redskins. At the league’s owner meetings in Atlanta, he told reporters there would be a “new energy” at the team’s headquarters and the stadium in the coming year.

“That’s my pledge,” Mr. Snyder said then. “That’s my obligation.”

Nearly 20 years later, that energy has all but disappeared. Entering Sunday’s game, the Redskins saw a 19 percent drop in attendance from 2017 — averaging just 60,719 fans per game. Washington’s self-proclaimed 50-year “sellout streak” ended as the team drew just 57,013 in its home-opener on Sept. 16.

On Sunday, FedEx Field did appear to be packed — but more than half the crowd looked to be wearing the Eagles’ colors, green and black. “E-A-G-L-E-S” chants were also prevalent throughout the game.

“It’s sad,” said Chris Graves, a 27-year-old Virginia resident who has been a season-ticket holder for four years. “When you watch rival teams, like now, you see more Eagles jerseys on the home side than ‘Skins fans. It just shows how far the franchise has fallen that nobody wants to come and support the home team.”

In November, cornerback Josh Norman bemoaned the lack of atmosphere at home games, noting how often the stands were filled with people wearing opposing jerseys and how frequently fans booed.

Before the season, Mr. Lafemina and his staff had a plan to “grab back” home-field advantage. The marketing crew cut down on selling to ticket brokers, and instead tried to aggressively market single-game tickets to fans. They introduced new food and beverage options at the stadium and tried to enhance the in-game presentation.

But huge sections of empty seats were clearly evident at FedEx, even when the team was winning.

The Redskins, for instance, reported attendance of 61,593 for Nov. 18’s game against the Houston Texans, despite Washington leading its division with a 6-3 record at the time.

Others areas proved to be problematic for the Redskins, too. The team’s television ratings on Fox have fallen for six straight years, according to the Washington Post. Twice in December, the Redskins drew lower ratings locally than the game that followed.

For context, the Patriots-Steelers matchup posted a 20 rating in the D.C. market, while Redskins-Jaguars drew a 15.3. Both of those games were on CBS.

In terms of popularity, this season the Redskins have not had a player land in the NFLPA’s quarterly Top 50 Players Sales List, which measures jersey sales and other sold merchandise.

There have also been plenty of public-relations disasters for the Redskins, starting with a #MeToo-tinged cheerleading scandal in May.

Last month, the Redskins faced a national backlash for claiming Foster off waivers just two days after a domestic violence arrest.

Other incidents — less troubling, but still embarrassing — plagued the team, week after week.

Linebacker Mason Foster insulted fans in a leaked social media conversation. Linebacker Zach Brown complained about his diminishing role. Safety Montae Nicholson was arrested for assault after a bar fight at 2 a.m. Former safety D.J. Swearinger was released for publicly blasting his defensive coordinator.

“Every week was a circus for the last six weeks,” Norman said Wednesday.

Under a cloud

The Redskins’ trade for Smith was supposed to bring stability to the franchise. The 34-year-old veteran was seen as a calm and capable winner.

At the team’s luncheon in September, Mr. Snyder pointedly called Smith a “breath of fresh air” — a shot at former quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Robert Griffin III after years of drama.

Today, just weeks from Smith’s potentially career-ending injury, the Redskins are anything but stable. The quarterback suffered infections stemming from multiple surgeries and isn’t expected to be ready for the start of next season.

That sets up a complicated offseason for the Redskins. What will they do at quarterback until — or if — Smtih returns? Colt McCoy, also returning from a leg injury, will be under contract and there could be interest in bringing back fill-in starter Josh Johnson. Washington could always draft a quarterback, though this year’s crop isn’t regarded as highly as previous classes.

Smith was seen as crucial to the Redskins’ 6-3 start this season. He didn’t fill up the stat sheet, but his lack of turnovers helped Washington maintain time of possession and allowed the defense to be rested.

And his leadership in the locker room proved irreplaceable.

Running back Chris Thompson said the team started “going downhill” after Smith’s injury.

“It’s just really been crazy,” Thompson said. “For a team, it’s been kind of tough to fight through all this adversity and just kind of seem like every week there was something new happening. We just kind of didn’t — weren’t able to get over that hump and just play football. It’s just been tough.

“I could be wrong about that, but I truly feel if nothing ever happened to Alex we would be sitting here as division champions right now,” he added later. “I truly believe that.”

Even if Smith can play, will he be effective? He turns 35 in May and is coming off a major injury.

The Redskins will have a list of other needs (offensive linemen, safety, wide receiver) besides quarterback — and with only a projected $20 million in cap space. Washington can clear out more room, though it would require cutting someone like Norman, who carries $6.5 million in dead money but would save the Redskins $8.5 million in cap room. Others like Mason Foster and Brown could also be gone.

Washington will have 18 unrestricted free agents, with Adrian Peterson, Preston Smith and Jamison Crowder the most notable among them.

Still, years of losing and dysfunction have taken a toll on Washington’s fan base. Fans are fed up and are turning away. The Redskins won’t be able to find an instant cure, even as they navigate their search for a brand-new stadium.

For now, for coming weeks and perhaps months, fans are left with sifting through the ashes of another disappointing season.

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