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The period of relative calm around the D.C. football team was too pleasant to last forever. Everyone who has followed it over the last two decades knew that. But the latest apparent reversion to the norm isn’t just a mildly diverting rebuilding of the circus tents in Ashburn. It may, in fact, be the end of hope for any return to serenity anytime soon.
A quick summary, for those who have been (wisely) paying attention to developments outside of the NFL in the dead zone of February and March:
The team is at a contract impasse with Pro Bowl quarterback Kirk Cousins that many observers believe gives all control to the player and will force the team to either pay literal top-dollar or find a way to ship him out of town.
The team’s other pending free agents, including two star wide receivers, appear headed for departure, with one of them, Pierre Garcon, making his displeasure clear via social media.
The team’s nominal general manager (and theoretical franchise savior) Scot McCloughan is reportedly not a true GM at all, but is instead a gifted scout with a grandiose title. He is not at the NFL Scouting Combine—scouting’s biggest week, basically—for reasons that are not entirely clear.
A team employee openly speculated on the radio that McCloughan, who has seen his career derailed by alcohol abuse in the past, had returned to drinking. The franchise did not publicly censure the employee, defend McCloughan, or otherwise respond to the conjecture.
Conflicting reports have emerged that the GM may have been absent from the team facility since Feb. 20 and/or may be fired before the start of next season and/or may already be effectively terminated. The team’s responses to these reports have been clumsy, confusing, and largely unhelpful.
Seemingly to mitigate the flood of toxic news, the team has given head coach Jay Gruden a two-year extension, reportedly pulled together on the fly over a steak dinner at the Combine—again, without the nominal GM present.
And all of that is in addition to the ludicrous trade-for-Tony Romo rumor and the dozens of frantic fans who dug up the obituary for McCloughan’s late grandmother to debunk the notion that he had been absent because of her funeral.
The general reaction to this in the national sports media has been mild amusement—the attitude of someone watching their drunken idiot of a friend once again act a fool in public just when he seemed to have grown out of it. But it’s much worse than that. It seems to me that this, at last, is the killshot for people hoping that Ashburn would evolve into a normal, high-functioning football operation.
The refrain forever was that if only owner Daniel Snyder would hire a top-notch football guy to make the play decisions, maybe things would be OK. The less-audible countermelody involved the question of why any ace football guy would want to work with this particular eternal circus of a franchise.
McCloughan was the dream answer: universally respected from a football perspective but in exile for non-football reasons. It was basically the football version of the trailer for a 1990s romcom: “The team needed a GM to save their future. He needed a football team to save his.” Then the Sarah McLachlan song kicks in.
It bought the team two years of relative calm, columnists two years of “Look ma, no drama in Washington!” pieces, and back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in two decades. Then the Elliott Smith song kicks in.
It’s a truism of romcom pairings that they would never work in the real world. Similarly, it turns out that maybe dropping a guy wrestling with demons into the NFL’s most chthonic franchise wasn’t going to have a happy ending for anyone.
Thanks in large part to the team’s bungled handling of the situation, McCloughan now finds himself again mired in uncertainty and facing possible NFL exile, in addition to whatever hell this has wreaked on his personal life.
And the team has fired off its one silver bullet—the maybe-hiring-a-real-football-guy? one—and it didn’t kill the monster. (The monster, in this case, is its own shambling reputation as a high-speed badger dance.)
Some fans will never give up. They’ll see every embarrassment as a media construction, every negative report as fake news, and they’ll be forever sure that this next free agent signing is the one that will finally work.
But for a few—the ones who most enjoyed the relative quiet of those last two years—this return to the circa-2010 status quo is going to be unacceptable, and they’ll leave. If the rest of this offseason doesn’t take on a very different tone, very quickly, it’ll be more than just a few. Then Freedy Johnston’s “Bad Reputation” kicks in over the credits.