Josh Norman

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It’s hard to remember now, but going into Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans, the big local NFL story had nothing to do with any on-field action. In those long-ago days, Alex Smith’s leg hadn’t shattered, the Dallas Cowboys hadn’t resurrected themselves and become a threat, and the entire improbable season wasn’t teetering on the edge of abject disaster. 

What we knew was that Washington was 6-3, first in its division with full control of its playoff possibilities, and that two of the team’s highest-profile defensive players had decided this would be the optimal time to throw the hometown fans under the nearest Metrobus.

Coming off a genuinely baffling win in Tampa, during which the Washington defense gave up 500 yards but only three points and the offense managed to eke out just 16 points against one of the worst defenses in the league, cornerback Josh Norman thanked the large contingent of Washington fans in Tampa by way of completely slagging off the (larger) contingent of fans back in the DMV.

“It just seems like the true fans … they really be with us on the road. We feed off of that,” Norman told reporters. “We go into the home stands and it’s like an open bubble. Like the other team’s turf or something. You hear more of them than you do us. Then if something bad happens, they suck. They sit back in their seat and they boo. I don’t know. This year, I’m starting to see that.”

Safety D.J. Swearinger went on the Grant & Danny Show on 106.7 The Fan and backed up Norman’s point. “I’ve played on four different teams,” Swearinger said, among many other things. “Never seen it that bad, you know, with other teams’ jerseys in the stands, with the boos, whatever it may be. I’ve never been a part of nothing like that.”

This, predictably, did not thrill the hometown fans. (It also presumably didn’t thrill the team’s brass in Ashburn, who have brought in proven outside executives this year to improve the stadium experience and generally repair the team’s fan relationship across the board.)

But it was actually a completely appropriate way for the team to celebrate being 6-3 for the first time in years. The last 6-3 mark came a decade ago, after the Steelers routed Washington on FedExField on a Monday night in 2008. The enduring image of that game wasn’t from the field but from the stands—a humiliating Pittsburgh takeover that finally killed the myth of the Washington home field advantage and the beginning of the end of Jim Zorn’s tenure as coach.

The plurality of opposing fans in FedExField is so familiar now—again, see the fact that the team disavowed their precious season ticket waitlist and brought in specialists to bring Washington fans back to the stadium—that it’s hard to remember how shocking it seemed at the time, on national television, to have Pittsburgh’s signature yellow Terrible Towels swirling in the background of almost every shot. 

But it was notable enough for The Post’s D.C. Sports Bog to dedicate a whole bunch of posts to collecting player reactions. Notable enough for Michael Wilbon to snark, in an otherwise unrelated column, “It really gets a little tiresome hearing how great [Washington] fans are, only to see fans of the Cowboys or Steelers or Eagles commandeer FedEx Field. Really, they’re a very average lot, at best.” 

“In my whole career I have never seen fans of our opponents outweigh the home crowd,” defensive end Andre Carter told at the time, as if hearing Swearinger’s words waft through the timestream to a decade earlier. “In my mind, I was thinking to myself: ‘What has the world come to?’ It felt like 49 percent of the fans in our stadium were Steeler fans.”

No one really thinks about Zorn’s strong start anymore, the few weeks where it seemed—to the outside, at least—like maybe he was a quirky genius who would revitalize the team, and that’s because all that promise ended in a whirl of yellow towels. After building up to a 6-2 record, that loss was pretty much the moment when a decade of trending downward suddenly accelerated and the team turned into a clown show held in a burning dumpster next to a goat rodeo. In some ways, you can draw a straight line from that Steeler fan invasion through all the other catastrophes to come, to include but not be limited to suing grandmothers, banning signs, hiring a guy out of a bingo parlor to get advice on improving the offense, firing Zorn, firing a hated general manager, undergoing the Albert Haynesworth ordeal, undergoing the RGIII experience, dealing with the extended Kirk Cousins experience, firing a well liked GM under a whisper campaign of character assassination, and so on and so forth. 

It’s a nifty coincidence that, almost exactly a decade later, after the team finally gets to 6-3 again—this time by winning on the road to stay hot, rather than losing at home to start a skid— the players have come out and thrown decade-old shade at the D.C. fans. In so many ways, this marks the inversion of that 2008 season, so it seemed like the most important thing in watching Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans was seeing how the team responded, and how the fans responded, and how the team responded to the fans. It felt like that would tell more of the story of this team’s long-term future than one more win or loss.

By that metric, everyone involved acquitted themselves well and the future looks bright. Norman and Swearinger managed to massage their critique into an exhortation of the hometown fans (almost as if they were coached by some smart guys brought in for this exact purpose), and the fans took it as a challenge. An announced crowd of 61,593 showed up for the game against Houston, and then the defense rewarded them with compliments and appreciation in the (losing) postgame locker room.

“What an atmosphere, right? Thank you [‘Skins] nation, you guys showed out in a big way,” Norman told ESPN’s John Keim. “That was huge for us. Oh my goodness; applauded y’all for sure. That was big time.”

Alex Smith laying down after breaking his leg against the Houston Texans Credit: KEITH ALLISON/FLICKR

Unfortunately, it turned out that it wasn’t echoes of 2008 that were going to most dramatically affect this game, but echoes of another November night exactly 33 years earlier, when Joe Theismann suffered a gruesome leg injury that ended his career—an injury eerily similar to the one that Smith suffered on Sunday.

At this point, how much fan support the team gets matters a whole lot less than what kind of play they get from their backup quarterback. It would be depressing and seem like doom for the entire campaign, unless you look for even more echoes, this time of Washington’s playoffs runs of 2007 and 2012, both of which required extensive contributions from the backup quarterbacks. Colt McCoy will start behind center this Thursday against the Cowboys.

We’ve reached the point in Washington sports fandom where time is a flat circle and literally all of this has happened before. The only hope now is that maybe some of the good parts will happen again, instead of just misery repeating itself, an unbroken chain of players berating fans and quarterbacks’ legs snapping, stretching into infinity.

Photos by Keith Allison on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.