October 5, 2010

State of Grace

When Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder hired Bruce Allen to succeed Vinny Cerrato as head of personnel last fall, long-frustrated fans of the burgundy and gold took notice. Deliverance was a long time coming.

When Allen and Snyder landed future Hall of Fame head coach Mike Shanahan to succeed Jim Zorn, fans raised eyebrows and no doubt a few fists. The overnight return to credibility was as exhilarating as it was unexpected.

Then, when Shanahan and Allen pulled off the NFL trade of the offseason, acquiring perennial Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb from the Philadelphia Eagles to replace classy-but-limited Jason Campbell, Redskins fans found themselves facing something of a dilemma.

2010 may be a transition year, but given the nature and quality of the upgrades, should the new Redskins be competitive right away?

To put the question in context one needs to consider the history.

Washington hasn’t fielded a consistent winner in almost twenty years.

The last time the Redskins even turned in back-to-back winning seasons was in ’96 and ’97, under the unlamented Norv Turner. Neither campaign ended in playoff appearances.

The franchise is coming off a dispiriting two-year misadventure under Zorn, capped by a 4-12 season in 2009, that erased the brief return to relevance enjoyed under Joe Gibbs between ’04 and ‘07.

If the names on the Redskins marquee in September 2010 had read Smith, Tobias and Jones, no one would have been thinking playoff contention. But the names in lights weren’t just any names—they were Shanahan, Allen and McNabb.

Context, meet dilemma.

No educated fan should impose winning expectations on a losing team in a transition year. No new head coach can be expected to assemble a new staff, assess inherited personnel, retool and re-deploy a scouting staff, install new offensive and defensive systems and acquire enough new pieces to turn a perennial loser into a winner in one offseason.

But given the names, it became impossible not to daydream.

Over the course of a long offseason of quarterback schools, OTA’s and minicamps, as the roster was methodically retooled and an air of competence settled over Ashburn, a jump from 4-12 to 8-8 suddenly didn’t seem so far fetched.

When April’s NFL Draft fetched a potential cornerstone left tackle, and reports out of Ashburn had the Redskins coming together in a sense of quiet confidence, it did not seem out of the realm of possibility this team could play an extra game or two in January.

Preseason did little to quell heightened expectations. The opener against Buffalo was cathartic—the Redskins looked crisp, efficient, professional. Then they stared down and bested the NFL’s brash “it” team, the New York Jets.

By the time the Redskins out-slugged and outlasted the Dallas Cowboys on opening day, it was hard to find a fan in burgundy and gold not prepared to at least entertain the notion the 2010 team might do something crazy. Something like skip right over the inevitable struggles endemic to any transition year and move straight to respectable. Maybe even a little better than that...

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