Devout Redskins fans who make the two-and-a-half-hour pilgrimage to Frostburg—the team’s quaint new preseason home in western Maryland—might misinterpret the message blazoned on starkly lettered billboards all over town: “Noah’s Ark Being Rebuilt Here.”
After all, when the team moved into Frostburg State University last month, the post-Gibbs era had, in fact, spanned exactly 40 regular-season and exhibition games, if not days and nights. And to devotees of all things burgundy and gold, the last two football seasons are notable for suffering of biblical proportions. But the billboards don’t refer to the sinking ship of a football franchise that is summering here. The signs were put up by a Frostburg church, and their placement is absolutely coincidental to the alleged reconstruction project that Norv Turner, Charley Casserly, et al. are overseeing at the local college.
The magnitude of the pro-Redskins spirit in this formerly coal-dependent community (pop. 8,005) in the Allegany Mountains lately is darn near as ludicrous as the Old Testament signage. A huge parade welcomed the team upon its arrival in Frostburg (in burgundy-and-gold-painted trains, no less!), and essentially every storefront and home façade along the town’s main streets showcases a placard or three of the “Go Skins!” variety.
The rah-rahing that all but consumes Frostburg reeks of artifice. Geographically speaking, there’s no way this burg should ever be hit with an epidemic of Redskins fever: Frostburg is closer to Pittsburgh than Washington.
And it ain’t like the locals are jumping on a bandwagon: Last year’s Redskins were the losingest bunch in franchise history. True, Washington did beat the then-Los Angeles Rams in the final week of the 1994 season, but that one-game winning streak the team rode into Frostburg equals Turner’s longest as a head coach. Come opening day, it’ll be two years since the Redskins won a division game.
So what prompted the good people of Frostburg to cook up this summer of love? Well, this is the NFL, so it must be money. The Redskins players, staff, media and fans fill up dorms, hotel rooms and restaurants that would otherwise have remained empty while the students are on break. Before the practice sessions were closed to the public Aug. 9, the number of Redskins rooters that came to watch their beloved team practice ranged from several hundred (on bad-weather days) to several thousand when the controlled scrimmages were held. That means a whole lot of the cabbage that is now pumping up the Frostburg economy would have filled Pennsylvania coffers if the team still called Carlisle home, as they did for three decades.
Owner Jack Kent Cooke began hinting he might relocate his team’s preseason workouts last year, while in the midst of trying to work out a deal to also move the team from its traditional regular season venue, RFK Stadium, to a site near Laurel racetrack. Cooke surely believed news of the Maryland immigration might entice Free State legislators to ease the regulatory burdens that had prevented him from building his Cooke Field in the District.
Unfortunately for Cooke, the powers that be were focused on the fact that a newly constructed stadium in Laurel would quash Baltimore’s protracted quest to replace the Irsays’ nightmoving Colts.
As things now stand, Laurel is all but out of the running for the Redskins next stadium. Other sites in P.G. County closer to the District haven’t yet been eliminated. But while the Redskins were dangling the training camp rumor in hopes of securing a stadium deal, the Dickinson College administration in Carlisle went ahead and booked its dorms. So, Cooke made the move anyway.
Since the team actually started practicing in Frostburg, nothing’s been done to pay back the townies for their gracious welcome. Michael Westbrook, the top pick from Colorado with the speed and size of Michael Irvin, hadn’t signed a contract when camp opened, but he was nevertheless listed (82) in the training camp programs distributed free of charge to Frostburg visitors by the local Chamber of Commerce. Before inking a deal Tuesday, Westbrook was one of only two 1995 first-round picks who had’t signed. His holdout was another painful example of Charley Casserly’s penny-wise, pound-foolish style of negotiating with high draft choices—where he saves the owner a few bucks on the overall contract, but scraps an entire rookie season.
Casserly’s anti-Midas touch was just as evident in the travails of second-round pick Cory Raymer, who also missed the opening week of camp because of the systemic contract squabble. The center from Wisconsin was expected to ease the damage inflicted on Redskin line depth by the loss through free agency of 1994 starters Raleigh McKenzie (Philadelphia) and Mark Schlereth (Denver). That’s not going to happen, however. During a controlled scrimmage with the Steelers held just days after he’d ended his holdout, Raymer suffered a grotesque compound fracture of his ankle when a teammate rolled up his leg on a dive play.
Maybe it would have happened even if Raymer had attended the opening week of drills, but maybe it wouldn’t have. But the injury provoked Cooke into a rare public display of aggravation with his Redskins. In an interview conducted mere minutes after Raymer’s injury (which was severe enough that it was diagnosed as a break even before the player left the field), the owner expressed more concern for the team’s fiscal fitness than for the physical well-being of the fallen center: “We just signed him!” Cooke groaned. “And we’re paying him a LOT of money!”
Raymer’s not the only Skin not earning his pay. The exhibition season opened dreadfully and has since gotten worse. Coaches exhibited far more melancholia after Saturday night’s overtime win over Houston than they did following a blowout loss to Kansas City a week earlier. The reason: Heath Shuler, who continues to complete fewer passes than Bob Packwood. The Houston game was to be Shuler’s ascension to the professional ranks; Knoxville hosted the game due to the one-time Volunteer’s fame around those parts. Because he was drafted so highly (with the third overall pick in last year’s draft) and then suffered through a rookie season that was as closely watched as it was abysmal, Knoxville’s the last place on the planet where people still think of Shuler in terms of his college exploits. In his last game at Neyland Stadium, Shuler led the Vols to a pasting of perennial SEC doormat Vanderbilt.
Given that Houston is now akin to an NFL Vandy, optimism was rational. But alas, Shuler was more homecoming queen than prodigal son: He completed just one of his last nine tosses, and threw an interception for a touchdown. As hoped for, the Blunderkind’s play certainly evoked memories of seasons past. Trouble is, Saturday night’s flashbacks went back only one year, not two.