Once again, something is missing from our Thanksgiving weekend — and I’m not talking about another Harry Potter movie.
I’m talking about a meaningful Washington Redskins game. I’m talking about the D.C. area being filled with chatter about the NFC East race and possible playoff scenarios and who the Redskins might meet in January. I’m talking about excitement, expectation, ecstasy.
What a void. Just as the NFL season has gotten interesting in recent years, the conversation in Washington has tended to turn to other things — whether the coach was going to get fired, perhaps, or how high the team might be picking in the draft. Thanksgiving is when the Serious Ball begins, but the Redskins essentially have been onlookers the past two decades. To the rest of the league, most of which is still in playoff contention, they’re just a tune-up game, a try-not-to-get-hurt game.
There’s a great line in “Patton”: “An entire world at war, and I’m left out of it?” It’s kind of like that around here at turkey time. Take this week, for instance. Thursday’s menu is positively scrumptious: the 10-0 Green Bay Packers and the 7-3 Detroit Lions for the appetizer, the Miami Dolphins and the Dallas Cowboys — both winners of three straight — for the salad course, and the NFC West-leading San Francisco 49ers and the AFC North-leading Baltimore Ravens for the entree. (And for you history buffs, the Niners-Ravens showdown will feature the first brother-versus-brother coaching matchup in the NFL’s 92 years — San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh facing off against Baltimore’s John Harbaugh.)
But the Redskins, of course, have nothing to do with any of it. Instead, they’ll be traveling to Seattle to do battle with the 4-6 Seahawks, who are in the postseason picture only because of the invention of mathematics. For Mike Shanahan’s warriors, it’s no longer about playoff dreams, it’s about putting one cleat in front of the other and trying to finish out the schedule before they’re down to 10 men.
It wasn’t always thus. Once upon a time, Thanksgiving in the nation’s capital meant (in no particular order) family, faith, food … and football — the Four F’s. During the George Allen years (1971-77) and the first Joe Gibbs era (1981-92), the smell of pumpkin pie was almost always associated with a Redskins playoff run. (During which, they were known to squash, if you’ll pardon the expression, any team that stood in their way.)
The Redskins even played on Thanksgiving on several occasions, some of the memorable ones. Most famous/infamous of all was the Clint Longley game in Dallas in 1974 — named after the anonymous Cowboys quarterback who came off the bench and shocked the Over the Hill Gang with a pair of touchdown passes, the second for the winning score with 28 seconds left.
Another year, 1990, the Redskins were forced to play three games in 11 days — Monday-Sunday-Turkey Day — the last at Texas Stadium. Naturally, the finale didn’t go very well (Dallas 27, Washington 17). In fact, when it was over, I’m pretty sure Gibbs sued the NFL schedule maker for extreme cruelty.
Despite these holiday mishaps, the Redskins made the playoffs both seasons. They were part of the NFL discussion back then, going to Super Bowls and sometimes winning them. But now they’re a team that seems to exist only from September to the third week of November. By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, they’re an afterthought — and their fans have to get their kicks watching other clubs, like the neighboring Ravens, compete for the big prize.
Think about it: How often in the last generation — since, say, 1993, when Gibbs first retired — have the Redskins reached Turkey Day with much, if any, buzz surrounding them? Believe it or not, only five times in those 19 years have they had a winning record at this point (8-4 in ‘96, 6-5-1 in ‘97, 6-4 in ‘99, 7-4 in ‘00 and 7-4 in ‘08). And in all but one instance (‘99), they fell apart and failed to reach the playoffs.
The Redskins are the Grinches Who Stole Thanksgiving (and Christmas, too, if you want to throw that in). One of the best parts about the fourth Thursday in November, and the weekend that follows, is the sight of oversized mercenaries tossing a leather ball — and one another — around. But Redskins Nation has come to dread this part of the season. They’ve been robbed, is what they’ve been — robbed of the thrill of the chase (for a postseason berth).
As a New York Giant, Barry Cofield never had to worry about playing in irrelevant games in late November. But in his first year as a Redskin, with the team stuck in a six-game losing streak, he’s getting a crash course in Playing for Pride.
“It’s difficult,” he said Monday, “It’s definitely the first time in my career I’ve been out of the [playoff] picture this early. And we just played our best game in weeks … in months,” in the overtime loss to Dallas.
Welcome to Washington, Barry. Oh, and happy Thanksgiving.
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