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Dan’s Disaster: How the Washington Redskins Plummeted to Rock Bottom

The professional football team in the nation’s capital was the hottest ticket in town for decades. But under Dan Snyder’s ownership, the franchise has lost a lot of games and managed to alienate even some of its most dedicated fans. What made one of most unshakable fandoms in America give up on its team?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I will say this for a stadium abandoned by its fans: There’s no line for the bathroom.

No line for beer. No line for hot dogs. No line—and no one, save a single solitary soul who seemed to be asking for directions—at the team stores, at least one of which dispatched an honest-to-god barker to stand out front and try to convince Redskins faithful to come in from the concourse and buy a $31.99 GO HOGS! T-shirt or else a $25 red-and-gold elf. Christmas is coming, you know?

Three days before the winter holiday, FedExField is running, alas, a little short on good cheer. I have come to the stadium to see in person what I have heard so often: that, allegedly, a football team plays in Washington. FedExField, just over the Maryland border, is a scant 7 miles as the crow flies from my home in northeast D.C. In the four years that I’ve lived in the District, I’ve heard often that this was once a football town, that the people of this city once forsook all else before their Sunday gridiron ritual, that there is, allegedly, a squad of men who compete under the city’s name eight times a year just down the road.

But you’d scarcely know it. This is a city still reveling in a sudden glut of sporting championships—the Mystics and Nationals this fall, the Capitals the previous year—and the Redskins, at the tail end of yet another lost season, have slipped into something like obscurity. In just the latest mark of previously unthinkable ignominy, this month saw the Baltimore Ravens, who just secured the AFC’s top seed, utterly eclipse viewership for a Redskins game in the same time slotin the D.C. market.

The fans aren’t gone completely—the paying crowd on Sunday, the last home game of the season and a divisional showdown with the New York Giants, is 66,083, meaning only a fifth of the stadium’s seats are unspoken for, so you can, for example, find a long line for stale pretzels at the Johnny Rockets, one of the very few concessions stands left open to service the sparsely populated upper deck. But make the mistake of asking a guy hawking Redskins and Giants beanies outside FedEx which one he’d sold more of, and you’ll get a look like he thinks—knows—you haven’t been paying attention. “Giants,” he says. Take a look later at the stadium’s distinctly blue-tinged lower bowl and you’ll know he’s right. Gulp.

When I told friends that I would be attending Sunday’s game between the 3-11 Redskins and 3-11 Giants, more than a few tried to intervene. “Wow sorry rip to you,” one texted; “Oh Claire no why,” wrote another.

And not without reason. Since the start of the 1999 season, when Dan Snyder bought the team, the Redskins have gone 142-192. In that time, they have had a winning record in just six seasons and have won a whopping two playoff games. The Snyder era has seen nine head coaches and 22 starting quarterbacks, and, during the past decade and change, a precipitous fall in attendance. In 2008, the team led the league in average attendance, 88,604. By the end of the 2018 season, that number had plummeted 31 percent to 61,028, placing them dead last in the league in terms of percentage of the stadium filled.

This season, things got especially bleak. In the fall, the Redskins made headlines when tickets started going for as little as $6. FedExField, the team’s home of 22 years, looked empty on broadcasts, or—worse—so full of opposing fans that Eagles running back Jay Ajayi decreed the teams’ divisional showdown this month a home game, a full year after the Redskins since-departed COO asked fans to help “grab that home-field advantage back.” In November, the Washingtonian ran a story detailing the successful completion of what might be called “the Redskins $30 challenge”: Could writer Madeline Rundlett get a ticket, eat, and drink at a game for less than $30? Indeed, she wrote, she could, treating herself to fries, spiked hot chocolate, and what sounded like an exceedingly poor time, all for under her budget.

Last month, Jordan Fabian, a lifelong Redskins fan who grew up in the D.C. suburb of Montgomery County, Maryland, bought tickets to what might well have been the 2019-20 NFL season’s worst matchup, a Week 11 showdown between the lowly Redskins and the lowlier Jets at FedEx. Except the Jets, who at that point in the season had a dazzling two victories to Washington’s one, looked positively dominant against the home team, thumping them 34-17. But no matter for Fabian: He and his friend had splurged for seats on the club level … and paid all of $11 for the privilege.

“I just spent the game laughing,” he says. “That’s about all you can do at this point.”

For Fabian, it was a homecoming of sorts. His maternal grandparents got season tickets to the Redskins’ previous home, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, in the early 1970s, in part due to some off-the-books finessing: His grandfather worked at a furniture store and, after finding an amenable sales rep, would give him a deal on furnishings to stay in the rep’s good graces. The first tickets cost him a grandfather clock; after his children, Fabian’s mother and his uncle, a.k.a. season ticket nos. three and four, found their respective partners, a sofa sold at cost secured two more tickets in the same section.

Redskins tickets in those days were nigh impossible to find—even with a helping hand, Fabian’s family’s six seats were split into three separate twosomes. So great was the allure of tickets that the United States Marshals Service (in)famously used them as bait, mailing invitations to a Redskins game to the last known addresses of 3,000 wanted fugitives in 1985; some 100 turned up, and found marshals waiting. Whereas rain is now as likely as not to overtake Redskins coverage above the fold in The Washington Post, it was said as recently as 2010 that the adage that “the two most important jobs in Washington are the president and the head coach of the Redskins” was only a slight exaggeration.

“The malls and roads were empty,” says journalist Dave McKenna of game days in D.C. during the glory days. In the 10 years beginning in 1982, the team made it to the Super Bowl four times, winning three. “They were so exhilarating it was exhausting.”

And then, well, Snyder came along. If his reputation for minding the team’s profit margin is perhaps a little larger than life—“I paid three times as much for the parking as I did for the actual ticket, which shows you how Snyder is running this organization,” Fabian says of the Jets game—it’s not for lack of ammunition. One of Snyder’s first splashy moves was to begin charging fans $10 a head to attend training camp, whose previously gratis standing had long been seen as a pan-NFL gesture of goodwill toward supporters.

McKenna knows more than most about Snyder and gestures of will, good or otherwise. In the ’90s, he began writing a popular column about the Redskins for the Washington City Paper. In 2010, he penned a City Paper cover story on the same subject, “The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder.” The piece functioned as a de facto glossary of the preceding decade’s slow march toward football irrelevance and fan-facing hostility, from “Hill, Pat,” the then-72-year-old grandmother sued by the team in 2009 after she fell behind on ticket payments, to “Safety”: “Bogus excuse used to get a ban on pedestrian traffic into FedExField on game days in 2000.”

Snyder didn’t care for the story, to put it mildly. McKenna says the Redskins owner first attempted to pressure City Paper’s owners into firing him; when they declined to do so, Snyder sued. He ultimately dropped the suit—“It was crap,” McKenna summarizes—but the episode did much to further the perception of Snyder as thin-skinned, vindictive, and, at times, outright cruel. He hasn’t done much in the decade since to change that image; the defining story of the 2019 season might be that of offensive tackle Trent Williams, who said this fall that the team bungled what he says was a life-threatening cancer diagnosis and then attempted to smear him for going public with it.

Lately, Snyder has been compared to Knicks and Rangers owner James Dolan, who is widely reviled and often called the worst owner in American sports. The Knicks have much in common with the Redskins—a storied franchise now mired in its own failures, with generations of followers desperate for change. The two owners have a lot in common, says McKenna, except for one thing: “Dolan has never waged a war with his fans.”

Fabian remembers his dad sitting him down in the basement as a child to show him VHS recordings of the ’87 and ’91 Super Bowl victories; when storied coach Joe Gibbs, who led the team to all three of its Super Bowl victories, returned to the team in 2004, he ditched class to watch his introductory press conference.

The Jets game was Fabian’s first at FedEx in years: His family gave up their season tickets a decade ago. The move to the new stadium had split up their old section, and fans, perhaps loath to pay Snyder’s premiums for beer, had a tendency to come in a few sheets to the wind. With the stadium’s famously exorbitant parking fees, the team on the field losing year after year, and resold tickets going for well below face value, they weren’t quite sure what they were paying for.

“Everything about the team, from the on-field product to the off-field product,” Fabian says, “is bad.”

The Redskins’ last home game of the year looks like a wintertime beauty: blue skies, highs near 50. That is, except for the main event. Even a division hellbent on a dismal, four-way 6-10 tie couldn’t quite find a way to keep Washington and New York in contention, so the nominal rivals meet having both already been eliminated from the playoffs. The contest instead seems to be more about the future: With the loser likely to get the second overall pick in the draft, and with the no. 2 choice likely to be Ohio State pass rusher Chase Young, there is a case to be made for losing. Which is to say it is not exactly the stuff football dreams are made of. One hour before kickoff, tickets could be found on StubHub for $14.

But, yes, those blue skies. As I step out of the Uber I took to the stadium, the driver turns to face me, excited. “Are you a Redskins fan?” he asks.

“Uh, no,” I reply. He says he isn’t either, and drives away.

One person who emphatically is: Lauren Monaco, who was at the game with her husband and their 12-year-old sons, Byron and Niko. They’re season ticket holders—they used to sit in the same section as the Hogettes, back before they hung up their frocks—as were Monaco’s parents and grandparents before her. She grew up coming to games, and even in years like this one, she’s glad to continue the tradition.

“It does make it a little difficult to get up and come, especially when it’s rainy and cold. But this is who I’m with,” she says, pointing to Niko and Byron, both decked out in Redskins gear, Niko with a conical Christmas tree hat jammed over his head. “They wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Niko hurries back over, tree hat wobbling. “There’s a minute and thirty seconds left,” he urges Lauren, “and they’re really close.” This is no small thing to Niko: While his parents come to every home game, rain or shine, the kids make it to only a handful each year. In the six years since they started bringing Niko along, he has never once seen a Redskins victory.

On Sunday, Niko almost breaks his streak. In the final minute of the game, the Redskins, who have been systematically dismantled by Daniel Jones (who ended the day with five[!] touchdowns and 352 passing yards) and have not led at any point, tie the Giants, 35-35, forcing overtime—generally not a desired outcome when the goal is to tank. But whatever the strategy, the Redskins fail; the Giants march down the field one final time, shuttering FedEx for the winter, 41-35.

Is this rock bottom? It would seem that way, if not for all of the other rock bottoms that preceded it.

This season, the adage that coaching the Redskins is among the worst jobs in the NFL, or sports, or, uh, maybe American society* [*Millionaire Edition], grew louder; one AFC assistant coach said it outright. ESPN analyst Todd McShay doubled down this month, saying that he would try to dissuade a friend from taking the post, prompting a furious response from Joe Theismann. But it’s not really that contentious. Each recent Redskins coaching micro-era has been resplendent with its own particular failings and bad luck, but all have been united under a general umbrella of distinctly Washington misery. Who would ever deign to take this job? Why would Urban Meyer, for one, want to wade into the Landover quicksand, even if it means reuniting with Haskins, his star quarterback at Ohio State?

Ah, yes, Haskins. Redskins fan Christopher Andrade came Sunday just for a chance to see the Redskins’ rookie QB. But on the first play of the second quarter, Haskins takes a nasty hit to his already troublesome left ankle, and leaves the field on a cart. (X-rays were negative.) “When he got hurt I was ready to go home,” says Andrade.

But he stays, and all he can do is shrug. At 27, he was born the same year that the Redskins won their third Super Bowl; his memories of this team, then, have mostly been a whole lot of disappointment. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, he’s reached a kind of Zen.

“A lot of the games I attend, we lose,” he says. “So it’s just a custom, regular thing.”

A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated that Jordan Fabian’s grandfather owned a furniture store; he worked at a furniture store. Also, Dave McKenna was misquoted as saying that James Dolan had never “raged a war with his fans”; the correct quote is “waged a war with his fans.”

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