If you're like me, you may have whiplash from watching what looked like a dead season six weeks ago to first place in the NFC East. We saw Joe Gibbs do this with the Redskins twice in the last decade, but it never felt quite right. Both times it was done with quarterbacks who were either over the hill, Mark Brunell, or never was, Todd Collins. The playoff runs of 2005 and 2007 were nice end-of-season treats, but nobody believed those teams were the beginnings of greatness. This time it seems real. But how did it happen in the blink of an eye?
As Thomas Boswell writes in the Washington Post, "Bad news bangs on the front door. Good news only taps on the back window. How many anticipated the swiftness with which the losing Capitals and Nationals would gain the best regular season records in their sports? But the Caps made the jump in a span of two losing seasons and the Nats did it in one." And about the Redskins, who finally seem ready to climb out of the hole they've been in since winning Super Bowl XXVI, "That's sports, where a bitter 20-year wait can be rewarded in one sweet month."
Funny thing is, when you think back to previous Redskin surges, they did seem to come out of nowhere. Just like this one. Heck, the first real wave of Redskin mania was created by a coach who took over a 6-8 team, declared, "The future is now," and delivered. Here are the post-merger surges of the Skins.
1971 - This was the days before free agency, making quick turnarounds nearly impossible. Unless you had plenty of money and the willingness to mortgage the future. And George Allen was just the man to do it. On draft day, 1971, he dealt away most of that year's draft and a chunk of the following year to bring him his trusted veterans from the Rams, the team that had just fired him. Although Allen won only two playoff games during his seven years as coach of the Skins, he built a consistent winner that made the playoffs four-straight years and made the Super Bowl in his second year. Pretty good for a team that had only two winning seasons in the quarter of a century before Allen became head coach.
1982 - Success wasn't too hard to predict for this team after they'd turned an 0-5 start into an 8-8 finish the year before, but Super Bowl dreams seemed ridiculous. But the veteran-laden bunch held together during the two-month players strike and returned united and ready to go. The John Riggins-led roll through the playoffs and Super Bowl is the stuff of legend. But after the win over Miami in Super Bowl XVII, it still seemed hard to believe that the Redskins had been unable to win a game less than a year and half earlier.
1999- Much like the '82 team, this group was a year removed from a terrible start - actually a worse start. The 1998 Redskins, who general manager Charley Casserly said, "should be a playoff team," had started 0-7. Although they played much better in the second half of the season, they still wound up only 6-10. And quarterback Trent Green, who's play was greatly responsible for the improvement, left as a free agent to sign with the Rams. But they dealt three high draft picks to Minnesota for Brad Johnson and the team finally achieved the offensive success that had been promised when Norv Turner was hired SIX years earlier. It was about time. The Skins went on to win the division title - their last.
2005 - In Gibbs' second go round, he'd been slow to adapt the NFL he'd been away from for 11 years. His 2004 team finished 6-10, but won two of its last three. This team actually started well, getting to 5-3 with an early November win over Philadelphia, but looked out of it after dropping three straight. But Gibbs had the ability to keep his team motivated through a long season and saw them roll through their last five games, including division wins over Dallas, New York and Philadelphia, rolling up 101 points in the three games.
There is still work to be done with this Redskins team. It will likely take wins over both Philadelphia and Dallas to get in to the playoffs, but as you can see from the above examples, we don't often see big success coming. "Good news," as Boswell writes, "only taps on the back window."
Goodbye Golden (arches) Days
When I read John Kelly's Washington column in the paper, I immediately thought of the Joni Mitchell lyric, "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." Which is really ridiculous since the story concerns the razing of a McDonald's in Bethesda. But this wasn't just any McDonald's. This was my McDonald's.
This was the McDonald's at the corner of East-West Highway and Pearl Street. It went up in 1968, five years before I entered Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School across the street. This was the McDonald's where I went with our family of six to eat as a treat before I became more of a regular than I should have been during those high school days. The standard order after football practice included two Big Macs, followed by a big dinner at home an hour or so later. Ah, to be a teenager again. You can eat like a hippo and not become one.
Years before, my standard order there was a double cheeseburger, until one day the manager suggested I try something new instead - something called the "Big Mac." It was love at first bite. But that McDonalds was so much more than the food. It was the place to hang, busting on your buddies and ranking the hottest girls in school. Heck, I probably launched my career there, arguing Sonny versus Billy in the early 70's. It may have looked like just a fast food joint, but it was so much more than that.
As Kelly writes, "For better or worse, the friends you make in high school and the experiences you have there set the tone for the rest of your life. And there is no better place for mutual showoffery - for wisecracks, capers, quips, jokes, japes and (literally) sophmoric witticisms - than ensconsed in the hard plastic seat of a corner booth at a McDonald's after play rehearsal, band practice, soccer practice, detention..."
I've long given up the Big Mac habit, but many years after I ate my last one at the sweet spot across from my alma matter, I still hunger for the wonderful days of hanging there. Not a parking lot, but apparently a glass office building will take the place of my old McDonald's, which in my memory, IS paradise.