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For some of us, a rescuer is the last thing the football team needs.
I am a sworn hater of Washington’s football team. From August through December, from the sweltering preseason through the first frost, I wish them nothing but ill. If they played in January anymore, which they don’t, I’d hate them into the New Year. There is nothing I like better on a fine Sunday afternoon than to drive around, running errands at the empty stores, while you all sit home and watch your squad being hammered into the ground. The wailing and groaning of Sonny, Sam, and Frank is music to my ears. After particularly brutal defeats, I’ll even tune in to the Fifth Quarter show, just to hear more lamentation. So the Steve Spurrier era should have been a golden age for me.
Even so, I was relieved to see the Ol’ Ball Coach go. This might be confusing to you local fans, who understand football only in terms of winning and losing. But I liked Spurrier from back in his University of Florida days; he was goofy and innovative. He would go out and call a flea-flicker or a flanker option pass in the first quarter on New Year’s Day, in front of God and everybody. Though I always want your team to fail, I also wanted to see Spurrier have fun in the NFL. It pained me to see a man like that chewed up and spit out by a bunch of humorless fanatics.
Now, Marty Schottenheimer…There was a Washington coach I could get behind: a grim-faced martinet and a has-been, whose career high point was choking away two AFC titles against John Elway. The thought of Coach Shit-Hammer hunkered down in Landover, grinding out a joyless string of 8-8 or 7-9 seasons, gave me a warm feeling.
But it was not to be. Marty got the ax, bringing in Spurrier and cognitive dissonance. My only comfort—besides all the losing—was knowing that this was just a stage in the turmoil of the franchise. Spurrier would be replaced by another coach, and another, and another, as your emotionally stunted owner kept flailing about for something that worked. Ray Rhodes? Jim Fassell? Please, bring ’em on.
Instead, in comes Joe Gibbs. This is the worst possible news. Growing up around Baltimore, I had plenty of reasons to loathe your football team. My Colts were gone, and this burgundy-and-gold gang of imposters was being pumped into my TV every Sunday. A child of football divorce, I saw the team as some strange woman who talked too much and smelled of lipstick and kept telling me to call her “Mommy.” I hated the complacent, sycophantic fans; the racist team name; the smug, braying fight song. Following my Philadelphia-born father’s example, I became an Eagles fan—which enabled me to root against your team and the Cowboys simultaneously.
But I despised Joe Gibbs independently of, or at least separately from, all that. I despised him as a matter of pure aesthetic judgment: He was the first coach, in any sport, I ever hated for his sheer boringness.
I know Gibbs was the architect of one of the highest-scoring offenses in league history. It didn’t matter. Somehow, he made even touchdowns boring. What Gibbs meant to me, always, was a 65-yard scoring drive in which John Riggins touched the ball 20 times. First and 10…second and 6…third and 3….first and 10. It was almost enough to make me go out and rake the leaves.
Down here, you didn’t notice how dull it was. That’s because you’re not really football fans. You’re just fans of winning. It would be inconceivable for a Washingtonian to call home after a playoff victory, as I did Sunday night once our beloved Eagles had wheezed their way past the Packers, and say, “They stink.” “They stink,” my father replied.
To cheer for the Eagles is to know despair. And Joe Gibbs made the despair cut deeply. He refused to be impressed by the Eagles I loved—the crazed, blitzing Eagles of Buddy Ryan. They were a savage team with blood in their eye-whites and blood on their hands, but they could never make Gibbs flinch. Over and over again, whenever the two teams met, ugly and dull beat brilliant. (The only consolation, in the rock-paper-scissors game that was the NFC East, was that Bill Parcells’ Giants would beat Gibbs as surely as Gibbs beat the Eagles. And the Eagles would beat the Giants. But that never got Philadelphia a Super Bowl.)
Yet I’m not sure I was worse off. You won’t understand this, either, but I’ll tell you anyway: It’s better to have lost with Randall Cunningham than to have won with Mark Rypien. Cunningham had punts that were more exciting, more involving, more flat-out inspirational than Rypien’s entire Super Bowl season.
That’s what the Gibbs experience comes down to: the triumph of inhumanity. It’s no accident that he threw you fans over for the joys of making machines run fast around a track. People and automobiles are interchangeable in his world—which is your world, too. Paint a Monte Carlo burgundy and gold, and you’d cherish it like a member of your own family.
So now the mechanic is here again, telling the fans he needs ’em to back the team. He needs you, all right—the way he needs tight lug nuts and properly inflated tires. Bitter fans would keep his quarterbacks from running smoothly. In this, the sainted coach has more in common with the despised owner than you think. What was it that little Danny learned, eating chili in front of the TV? He learned that passion could be a means to an end. He learned that love could be a form of greed. —Tom Scocca