Dwayne Haskins Jr. playing at Ohio State
Dwayne Haskins Jr. playing at Ohio State Credit: Maize & Blue Nation/Wikimedia Commons

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Joe Theismann giving Dwayne Haskins Jr. permission to wear No. 7 is the best thing that has happened to the Washington football team in decades.

This is a team that had some very good years a very long time ago, and those good years are what keep a lot of the fandom alive. This is no longer a good or healthy thing. The team has weaponized the fans’ longing for this increasingly distant past, and wheel it out whenever the current situation becomes notably dire.

New players are indoctrinated with this slavish past-worship as soon as they show up, citing historical Washington football players that were alleged influences. Safeties talk about the late Sean Taylor, offensive linemen know to reference the Hogs, and coaches talk about Joe Gibbs. It’s a cute trick that’s quickly growing wrinkled and old.

What Haskins is doing here is something different and new and slightly thrilling: He’s not just saying that he remembers the past, he’s saying that he intends to supplant the past. Which is, obviously, what this team needs, after a relentless decade plus of mediocrity.

The move has drawn the usual tiresome outrage from portions of the fan base and media members, as is becoming depressingly usual. And, also as usual, I’m baffled by it. I get the theory that we’re saying that the past greats have taken such complete ownership of their jersey numbers that they should never be reissued.

From this line of thinking, you start to get into the genuinely idiotic arguments about if Theismann is “good enough” to have his jersey number retired. But if you stop to really think about it, this whole practice doesn’t make a ton of sense. What you wind up with, especially in the case of a team like Washington that has such a bright-line distinction between their good era and their mediocrity, is very clear numerical split between the past and the present with all of the greatness on one side of that split.

It makes me think of comic books, as almost everything does. When I started reading comics, the ongoing continuity was part of what pulled me in. You read an issue of X-Men and all the characters are referencing things they’ve done in the past, people they’ve lost, ways they’ve changed, and each reference would have a little editor’s note pointing you to the issue where you could actually read the story. It feels like you’re coming into a larger tapestry of events where there’s a past to discover and history to mine.

But as more time passes and more and more history accrues, continuity stops being a draw and starts being an obstacle. Comic book movies have gotten to this point even faster than their source material did—just ask anyone who tried to see Avengers: Endgame without having seen most of the 21 movies that preceded it.

From casual observation, it seems like most of the people who object to Haskins wearing No. 7 are older—the sort of people who remember actually seeing Theismann play. But Theismann’s career ended more than three decades ago. We’re past the point where clinging to that memory is a healthy tribute. A fondness for the past in small doses is a normal, healthy thing. But if you only look backward, you’re never going to be able to move forward.

It’s long past time for this team to start moving forward. Letting young players give new life to old jersey numbers is a good step.