"I'll tell you this: If we lose games this year, it won't be because of Dan Snyder. It will be because of me, the coaching staff and the players."
--Coach Joe Gibbs, in Street & Smith's preseason yearbook, June 2004
Not true, Coach. By the fifth game of the season it was obvious that something else was at work. Whatever ailed the Redskins couldn't fairly be blamed on the owner, coaches, or players. It had to be a jinx of some kind. Worse yet, as one Redskins fan wrote to Dan Snyder, a curse.
On a somber Monday morning, Snyder read the note from Madame Cassandra with the glazed eyes of an NFL owner whose team just lost a Sunday-night game on a 65-yard field goal.
Baltimore 31, Washington 30.
It was the Redskins' fifth straight loss, all by flukes. For openers, a three-point loss to Tampa Bay on a Hail Mary pass as time ran out. Then a one-point loss to the Giants, followed by an overtime loss to the Cowboys and a double-overtime loss to the lowly Cleveland Browns.
Five losses by a total of nine points. Had Joe Gibbs left his winning touch on the NASCAR circuit?
Columnist Tom Boswell said nonsense, Gibbs still has the touch. This was simply Joe's way of breaking in a new Redskins team. Hadn't he lost his first five games as head coach during the Jack Kent Cooke era?
True, but as columnist Sally Jenkins pointed out, Dan Snyder was no Jack Kent Cooke when it came to patience. He hadn't brought Gibbs back and spent millions in the off-season to suffer through another losing season.
Madame Cassandra had that part right: "Dollar for dollar," she told Snyder, "you are the best team owner in football and deserve a better return on your investment."
Madame obviously had read the book on how to get the attention of self-made millionaires. Flattery would get her everywhere.
Snyder read on. The letter might be off the wall, but it was a better way to start a Monday than listening to radio call-ins from angry Redskins fans.
Madame Cassandra's real name was Sandra Kozinski, and she lived in a house filled with cats and Redskins memorabilia on Maryland's Eastern Shore. A psychic by trade, she first gained local notice by serving as technical adviser on the Blair Witch movies. But her real claim to fame came in 1997--predicting a five-day rainfall that ended a crop-killing summer drought.
All this she spelled out in her note, along with what she'd learned from a séance that tracked down the cause of the team's miseries. A dawn-to-dusk job, and at the end of the day she had her psychic answer.
The fault isn't yours or that of the coaches or players, she told Snyder. The Redskins could have fielded an all-pro team with Vince Lombardi coaching and still ended up as losers.
No, people aren't the problem. It's the stadium. Call it Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, FedEx Field, whatever--it's cursed by hostile spirits.
Dan Snyder finished reading and went over his options. Option one: Toss the note into the crank file. Any other day that's what he'd have done, but the memory of that freakish 65-yard field goal gave him pause.
The lady might be on to something. Marty Schottenheimer, Deion Sanders, Steve Spurrier--there was a curse at work, all right. The only question in Snyder's mind was whether Madame Cassandra had put her finger on the source.
Her theory traced the curse back to Jack Kent Cooke's rush to build a new stadium in 1997. A sloppy title search had passed over the fact that the land was--or had been--owned by the Piscataway tribe.
In short, the Redskins' home field in Landover was built on a Native American shrine--a burial ground for fallen warriors, a place for mystic spirits. Bad enough that Cooke and Snyder called their team the Redskins; this was a final insult.
That, at least, was what voices told Madame in her séance. Credible? Not really. But neither was that 65-yarder.
Which led to option two: Should he pacify the native spirits by changing the name of the team? No way. Snyder had grown up a Redskins fan and would pass on to that great owners' box in the sky as a Redskins fan.
Which led to option three: Donate $50,000 to Madame Cassandra's pet charity, the feline division of the Animal Welfare League, and she'd "talk to the offended spirits."
Meaning? "Trust me," she said, "we will return our Redskins to the Super Bowl."
So that was it--a $50,000 hustle. Or so Dan Snyder, who didn't get rich by playing psychic hunches, thought. But suppose he was wrong?
Snyder thought again. What was there to lose? Fifty thousand. He'd blown a thousand times that on Spurrier alone.
"It came up so fast, we couldn't catch it on the Doppler."
--Weatherman Bob Ryan on why he'd missed forecasting the worst tornado to hit southern Maryland in half a century
It would take Joe Gibbs to state the obvious. With the north end zone ripped by the twister, there was no way the Redskins could play the Packers at FedEx Field the following Sunday.
What then? Play the game later in the season? No go, said the NFL. Switch the game to Green Bay? Never, said Snyder and Redskins ticket holders.
"Why don't we," said Gibbs in a conference call with the commissioner's office, "just play the game at RFK?"
Disapproval from the commissioner's end of the line. Surely, someone said, you don't mean old RFK? That relic? No panoramic screens, no super skyboxes.
"Bad," replied the NFL, "for the league image."
True, said Gibbs, but unless someone has a better idea . . . .
Nobody did, so RFK it was. Outdated, abandoned RFK. But a stadium with spirits of its own: the Over-the-Hill Gang, the Hogs, Sonny, Billy, Larry, and Riggo. A place with memories, a stadium that rocked that Sunday with the fervor of fans back home.
Redskins 24, Green Bay 7.
A sidebar to the Post's story of the game quoted unnamed sources saying it would take a month to repair FedEx. Four weekends for Joe Gibbs's team to play their way back into contention.
Snyder looked over the schedule for December, the make-or-break month for his team's playoff hopes. Four big games. No chance, unless--
The phone rang. It was Gibbs. Had Snyder heard the news? That downpour two days ago, the one that knocked down the power lines in Landover? It did more damage than reported. Prince George's County's chief engineer just inspected FedEx and found the south end zone unsafe.
Meaning? "It looks like we'll have to play the season out at RFK."
Snyder thanked him, hung up, pulled out his checkbook. Another 50K for the Animal Rescue League, this time without being asked. What the hell, make it 100.
Word is that construction of the new stadium--built next to old RFK--begins next spring, though who'll pay for it is still up in the air. One rumor, straight off the Piscataway tribal hotline, sees part of the cost covered by profits from the tribe's brand-new casino, built on the site of condemned FedEx Field.
So much for the curse of Landover. And Madame Cassandra? She's on the Snyder payroll now, psychic insurance that the Redskins, having made the playoffs in '04, will go all the way in '05.
Gibbs is back. RFK is back. It's like old times.
Well, not quite. That's Madame's next project--to get Frank Herzog back in the radio broadcast booth with Sonny and Sam.