To quote the late great Yogi Berra, the late-blooming and winning season of the Washington Redskins is “déjà vu all over again.” And that’s good news for Washington sports fans. Why? Most people think this is because it is a return to the sweet Super Bowl era of Gibbs, Theismann, Riggins, and the Hogs, and it may ultimately be that climactic. But there’s a more contemporary comparison. The Redskins excitement mirrors the exuberance the metro area enjoyed with the Nationals’ winning season, when they won more games than any other team in Major League Baseball (100) and also claimed the National League East pennant. The Skins surged late with a seven-game winning streak and grabbed the NFC East title. This is heady stuff for any sports-minded city, but especially in Washington, where we’ve been thirsting for major-league cred.
The Nats made it to October, a benchmark in baseball. The Redskins are playing in January, an NFL benchmark. What makes both accomplishments remarkable is neither is a fluke. The teams’ earned their rewards with skill, smarts and being better than the other guys.
But it’s at this playoff stage where most Redskins fans hope the parallel ends. The Nats made it into the playoffs and a chance at the National League title, but went down at the end of a five-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals, who were the defending World Series champs. The Redskins are in just about the same position: a wild-card contest Sunday that could propel them toward the NFC title. But they have to beat the Seattle Seahawks, who are also on a hot streak and are favored to win by three points.
What do the Redskins have going for them in this playoff moment that was similar to the Nationals? Quite a lot. There’s home-field advantage. Redskins fans are famously a boost for the team. Nationals fans showed a lot of that same vigor, especially in the last games of the season. The weather will likely not be a factor. Temperatures at FedEx Field at game time are predicted to be in the 40s—about what Seattle is accustomed to, though they usually have rain and it will be dry here.
But the major factors are human. Washington is blessed with superstars who are defining our winning teams. The Redskins have Robert Griffin III, Alfred Morris, and Pierre Garçon. The Nationals have Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, and Jayson Werth. On both teams these men lead strong starting lineups and strong benches with depth, and nurture locker-room camaraderie. They are expensive, and they earn their paychecks. They exude a sense of team spirit that’s infectious among the fans. Not to forget are the helmsmen, Mike Shanahan and Davey Johnson. Both lanky, weathered and about as talkative as a Western anti-hero, they are a decade apart in age; Johnson, the elder statesman, turns 70 at the end of this month. They inspire loyalty, which fans can sense at a mile. Because they are respected by their players, they are respected by the fans. They can be controversial but appear to prevail over adversity. It may even be part of their fuel.
So what does all this mean as we go into Sunday’s game and perhaps another playoff game after that? Much like the Nationals, whatever happens it’s still been a great season with a lot of promise for the years ahead. If we lose, they’ll be disappointment, but it’s not the end of anything. The Gibbs/Theismann/Riggins era didn’t happen overnight. We have to remind ourselves that RG3 is still only a rookie. This is just the beginning of what could be a legendary career for him, with all of us along for the ride. The Nationals have been building their power for several years, and the way ahead looks bright. Last month, Johnson vowed it is “World Series or bust.” That goal is underscored by the fact that this season will be Johnson’s last. The first game of spring training is February 23 against the Mets. The first game of the regular season is at home on Monday, April 1, against the Marlins. No April Fool’s jokes, please.