Things just haven't been the same in Washington lately. It's not only the White House changing hands, a Democrat there after all those years of Republican occupancy. It's also Duke Zeibert's restaurant being closed. And it's Riggo and the Hogs and the Smurfs leaving town. And the Redskins looking so god-awful.
On Sunday they lost again, this time to the Atlanta Falcons 27-20 before a crowd of 53,238 at Washington's RFK Stadium. As the end neared, 16-year veteran linebacker Monte Coleman stood on the sidelines and implored the home fans to get more involved. He waved a towel over his head. He yelled. He jumped up and down. "The game wasn't out of reach," he said later. "But they didn't respond. Not at all. In the old days the place would have rocked. You would have felt the ground shaking out there. Not anymore."
The old days. That was when the team and its fans were arrogant beyond measure, proud and cocksure, boorish. Back then, everybody went to Duke's for lunch and chattered about the Redskins over big bowls of crunchy pickles and onion bread. They sipped cocktails and relived the glory. The crowd was newspapermen and TV talking heads and Capitol Hill sharps and Beltway lawyers with and without earrings. When they got tired of the food and the chatter, they padded off to the lobby and took a look at the Lombardi Trophys lined up all in a row. The Redskins won three Super Bowls when Joe Gibbs coached them from 1981 to '92, and Jack Kent Cooke, who owns the team, showed off the spoils right there at Duke's. "See there," Zeibert was once heard to say, as if he himself had something to do with it.
But Zeibert lost his lease this summer and closed his doors, and the regulars scattered. It seems a weird coincidence that the D.C. power-lunch crowd lost its favorite roosting place at about the same time the Redskins went all to misery and hell. Maybe Duke's should have closed down last year, when then-coach Richie Petitbon's team stumbled to a 4-12 record, the Redskins' worst in 30 years.
Much has changed, all right, but not Cooke, the eccentric old billionaire who seems stuck in a time warp. After the Redskins lost by 21 points to the Seattle Seahawks in the first game of the season, Cooke momentarily appeared to forget what year it was. "We're going 9-7," he declared. "Mark my words!"
Cooke is one of the richest people on the planet and thus can afford such optimism. But pity Norv Turner, the rookie coach who joined the Redskins in February after Cooke fired Petitbon, and who now finds his team at 1-3. Not that he meant to pressure his new man, but Cooke handed Turner a club with the highest payroll in the NFL (more than $47 million), and one that has been suffering through an identity crisis, at least with the fans. Who are these new guys, these free agents, anyway? And where have Jacoby and Mann and Byner gone?
No, not that he meant to pressure him, but Cooke predicted that Turner would "one day be called one of the greatest coaches in the National Football League."
Having spent the previous three years with Jimmy Johnson's Dallas Cowboys, Turner, 42, is no stranger to public gestures that include bear hugs and big, wet kisses. He was as strong a candidate for a big-time NFL coaching job as was available last year, having served so well as Johnson's offensive coordinator. Yet Turner has stepped into a situation that might require more reinventing than rebuilding. The Redskins have at least two dozen players who weren't on last year's squad, and most of Turner's assistant coaches are new.
Except for a few hangers-on like Coleman and defensive back Darrell Green, the great names who contributed so mightily during the Gibbs era have cither retired or moved on to other teams. Yet, curiously, the Redskins haven't gotten any younger. In fact, the average age of the players has increased this year from 26.5 to 27.4.
"Sure, we're a year older," Turner says. "But that's what happens when a year goes by. You get a year older. I'm older, you're older, everybody's older."