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It’s hard to remember now, but 2016 started off pretty well, at least from a D.C. sports perspective. The football team closed out 2015 by beating up the Eagles to clinch the division title and then started this year by kicking the Cowboys around in a meaningless game.
The Caps had already won 28 games and in fact had a nine-game win streak snapped on the very last day of 2015. They were riding an incredibly hot start to the season, and it seemed clear that this team, finally, was the one that wouldn’t collapse in the end.
The Wizards were … well, they were Wizarding along, sure, hovering around .500 to start the calendar year, but John Wall had spent December playing like the superstar he was supposed to be, and the team opened 2016 proper with a New Year’s Day victory over Orlando. Heady days indeed, by Wizards standards.
Even the Nationals managed to chip in to the start of the year, even though no one fully realized it at the time. It wasn’t on par with the previous year’s big-money signing of Max Scherzer, one of the best pitchers in baseball, but the early-January signing of Daniel Murphy would turn out to be a tremendous value pick-up, and crucial to the team’s 2016 efforts. This would also be the debut season for manager Dusty Baker (although he had actually signed on in November of 2015).
Yes, it seemed clear from January that this would finally be the year where D.C. sports shook off the … whatever you want to call it. The curse or the jinx or the bad luck. The endless, monotonous cycle of mediocrity and disappointment. This was it! Joy and hosannas would shower across the District, and the halcyon days of the 1980s would return!
Now let’s see how all that turned out.
Did the Capitals shake off its demons?
No. The team did exactly what it tends to do: start strong and then lose. Specifically, the Caps followed a stellar regular season with a slog through Round 1, then finished with a loss to the Penguins in Round 2. To really maximize the suffering, the defeat was a heartbreaking overtime finish that followed a comeback late in regulation—again, just rousing enough to spark hope that, no, this time would finally be different. It was not. The Penguins would go on to win the Stanley Cup, which only served to back the truck over the Caps’ limp corpse one more time.
But what about the Wizards?
No. The outfit continued to epitomize mediocrity, finishing at exactly .500 and missing the playoffs. Head Coach Randy Wittman, an unmemorable white guy in goofy glasses, was fired in April and immediately replaced with the first rumored candidate, Scott Brooks, also an unmemorable white guy in goofy glasses. Meanwhile, GM-for-life Ernie Grunfeld remained to chart the course of the franchise, which he does with the keen navigational eye of Clark Griswold on the Lambeth Bridge Roundabout. In a not-unrelated story, the team abjectly missed out on any interesting free agent targets in the offseason. As 2016 winds down, the team hovers just below .500 and continues to Wizard along.
The football team, then?
The Skins did OK, actually, at least by recent standards. The team went to the playoffs, which was good, but then lost to the underdog Packers, which was bad. In the offseason, the Robert Griffin III era formally ended, which was fortunate (if bittersweet), but the team failed to add help at the positions where it was most needed. (This culminated in the inexplicable drafting of a wide receiver—arguably the deepest position group on the roster—who would miss nearly the entire season with an injury.) But as things stand at the end of 2016, the franchise has just lost yet another embarrassing nationally televised home game and is a long shot to make the playoffs. Good by this team’s standards is not yet the same as good.
And the Nats? With Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper and the new manager, was redemption in store?
Sadly, no. Instead, the Nats went the Caps route of enjoying a strong regular season, including standout performances from the previous two years’ most notable free agent acquisitions (Scherzer, who may actually have been worth his enormous price tag, and Murphy, who far surpassed his) and homegrown rookie Trea Turner. Then the team lost in the NLDS again, the second time in three years.
So, basically, everyone did exactly what they always do. Nothing changed. Instead, the local sports scene settled deeper into its rut, and the fans grew even more jaded and cranky. You could feel it at the start of this Wizards season, as the team hasn’t even been granted its usual start-of-year patience, and you can see it in the empty seats at games and the diminished local ratings for football games.
And overshadowing everything was the election and now the incoming administration, providing a constant reminder of the limitation of sports as an escape.
Back in September, watching the football team stagger out of the starting blocks, I described “the frustration at the heart of the D.C. sports malaise: the unshakeable feeling that things repeat.” I’ve made a lot of wrong predictions in these columns, but that one has held true and shows no signs of letting up.
There are two avenues of hope that I can see.One comes from Chicago, where the Cubs—the most cursed of teams, in the most superstitious of sports—finally won the World Series. If they can do it, anyone can. It just might take most of a century.
The other is simple contrast: Last year at this time, things were looking pretty good, so maybe we should’ve known there was nowhere to go but down. This year, things are looking stagnant and mediocre. So at a minimum, there’s definitely room to improve.