I've always been a Redskins fan–I've lived here since 1969. It never occurred to me to root for the old Baltimore Colts, not even when they had stars like Johnny Unitas. The Redskins of my youth were lovable losers. Even after George Allen turned them into winners, they were a likeable team with players like Sonny Jurgensen, Billy Kilmer, Larry Brown, Bobby Mitchell, and Charley Taylor.
Now that the Redskins don't play at RFK, the Ravens seem almost as close. These days the Redskins aren't winners, and unlike the losers of previous eras, they aren't very lovable. Players come and go. The new guys always seem to be cockier and not as good as the players they replace, like Fred Smoot taking over for Darrell Green.
Was it time to make an adjustment in my rooting interests? I decided to find out which team–the Redskins or the Ravens–offers the better football experience.
IT WAS A RAINY night in August when the Ravens kicked off their preseason against the Atlanta Falcons. I began my trek to Baltimore from the Wisconsin Avenue on-ramp to the Beltway, close to my Bethesda home.
Tropical Storm Bonnie was supposed to be coming as I ventured onto the Beltway at 6:45 on a Thursday night. The first eight miles of my trip would be the same whether I was going to see the Ravens or the Redskins, the slow slog along the Beltway's inner loop past such logjams as Georgia Avenue, Colesville Road, and New Hampshire Avenue.
The traffic was no picnic, but I made the I-95 interchange in 30 minutes and turned north on I-95. It was stop-and-go for a while, but eventually it cleared up, and I pulled up to the lot outside Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium just before 8 as the game was starting.
The security lines were divided into male and female, so women wouldn't have to be searched by a man. Inside the Ravens' stadium, I was struck by the number of people wearing purple jerseys, and not just any purple jersey. More than half were wearing 52, the number of star linebacker Ray Lewis. The sea of purple seemed proof that Baltimore finally has forgotten the Colts. Except for an occasional white jersey with Johnny U's number 19, there was not a Colts reference to be seen.
The Ravens played their first game in Baltimore in 1996. The city had gone 12 years without an NFL team. Unlike Washington baseball fans, who embraced the Baltimore Orioles after the Senators left town, few people in Baltimore ever cast an affectionate glance at the Redskins. Baltimore suffered its loss, and when the time came, did unto Cleveland what Indianapolis had done unto it–stole the Cleveland Browns.
TWO NIGHTS after driving through the rain to Baltimore, I loaded up the van and began the trek to FedEx Field in Landover. It had taken me 75 minutes in weeknight traffic to get to the Ravens game. The trip to Landover took 50 minutes, starting at the same Beltway ramp.
Arriving at FedEx Field, I was struck by one difference in the two stadiums. On the side of M&T Bank Stadium was the giant purple Ravens logo, a fierce-looking bird with a red twinkle in its eye. FedEx Field, in contrast, is bedecked in the green, purple, and red colors of Federal Express, not the burgundy and gold of the Redskins.
Inside FedEx Field, there was another difference: Lots of Redskins fans were wearing team jerseys, but there was no unifying player represented like Ray Lewis. In fact, most of the players being celebrated were ex-players. There were jerseys for Stephen Davis, playing against the Redskins for the Carolina Panthers that night, for departed star Champ Bailey, and a lot with number 28, the number of retired cornerback Darrell Green. There were Sonny Jurgensen jerseys and those of other players long retired.
The Ravens are a team of the present. They won a Super Bowl after the 2000 season and have made the playoffs three of the last four years. The jerseys seemed a sign of what was wrong with the Redskins. Since Dan Snyder took over from Jack Kent Cooke, the Redskins had become a team of the past. Even the hiring of Joe Gibbs as head coach, as welcomed as that was, was a step back in time.
THE STADIUM where the Ravens play has 69,084 seats, almost all of them purple. The Redskins have packed 91,665 seats around their field, some maroon, some yellow. This is possible because Redskins seats are 16 inches wide–I know because I was able to talk my ruler past security guards.
The Ravens have made most of their seats 18 inches wide. Get a club seat in Baltimore and you get 21 inches of room.
Another difference is the presence of "SmartVision" video screens at each end zone in Baltimore. At 100 by 24 feet, they are the two largest permanent video screens at any stadium. The picture is crystal clear, and almost every foot of the screen is used to show the game as it takes place.
The Redskins have a video screen at each end of the field, but 80 percent of the screen space is used for advertising. Game shots and instant replays are squeezed between ads.
Except for the end zone, it's hard to find the words "Washington Redskins" at FedEx Field. I did see one dim sign sandwiched between a pair of ads for E-Trade. Even the Redskins logo at midfield is small and dull compared with the bright purple bird 40 miles north.
Everything about the Redskins field seems dimmer and smaller than in Baltimore. The yard lines seem not as white, the field not as green. It rained through the Ravens game, but the fans didn't seem to care. The Redskins claimed that some 58,000 attended their game against the Panthers, but if they did, they weren't sitting where you could see them.
THE REDSKINS PLAY in a suburban wasteland. A Redskins game is a single-destination afternoon or evening. Around the stadium, there is nothing else to see or do. Even if there were, it's not clear that Redskin ownership would let you go anywhere else. You must park in a Redskins-owned parking lot–there is no off-site parking, as walkers are not allowed onto the grounds.
The Ravens don't have nearly as much parking space. The stadium was built on the parking area originally used for Camden Yards. But there seem to be plenty of places to park, as freelance parking experts, the kind who get you into somebody's front yard on Preakness Day, shoehorn you into spots. Official or not, they know their craft, and if you balk at giving them $20 for their service, most will take $10. The beauty of going to see the Ravens is that you can park downtown in a lot, have a good dinner in a Baltimore restaurant, and saunter into the game.
Outside M&T stadium is a large plaza honoring Baltimore hero Johnny Unitas. The stadium is built so the outside walkways offer a view of the city. If you go for a Sunday game, you can walk with the family to the Inner Harbor and make a day of it.
MARKETING WHIZ Daniel Snyder bought the Redskins in 1999, and the Redskins are like the proverbial Christmas tree: The show is in the lights and excitement around them. The ads flash and crow. The sound system is about 20 decibels too loud. Snyder's central idea seems to be that if you flash enough lights at people and scream in their ears, they will buy your product.
The Ravens, owned until last year by Art Modell, have always been a real football team. Modell was one of the old-time NFL owners. First the Browns, and then the Ravens, were his life. At M&T stadium, under new owner Steve Bisciotti, there is a still a sense that the team is number one and its advertisers are simply advertisers.
Bisciotti, 44, and Snyder, 39, are the two youngest owners in the league. Snyder's regime has been marked by his willingness to break with tradition. After each year of failure, he tears up the team, fires a coach, and starts over. The result: Lots of ex-Redskins, like popular kick-returner Brian Mitchell, have ended up on championship-caliber teams. Quarterback Brad Johnson wasn't good enough to play for the Redskins but won a Super Bowl for Tampa Bay.
Bisciotti seems to have no such insecurities. He's happy being a hands-off owner. People who know both men say Snyder has a compulsion to rip things up and prove he can win in his own way. By contrast Bisciotti, a successful business executive, seems secure in his own skin. Intense and mostly inaccessible, Snyder never has seemed to have a very good time owning the Redskins.
Bisciotti is a big University of Maryland fan, and he sometimes can be found playing golf at the University of Maryland course with Terps basketball coach Gary Williams and Post writers Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon in his foursome.
THE ONE TRADITIONAL thing the Redskins still have is their radio broadcasting team of Sam Huff and Sonny Jurgensen. The team used to be Sonny, Sam, and Frank, but the Redskins dumped Frank Herzog. If Redskin failures continue, how long will it be before Snyder decides to dispense with Huff, whose frank style of analysis must give Snyder heartburn?
Both stadiums have great club-level concourses. Food and beer prices are comparable. Expect to pay $6 for a hot dog and $10 for a broiled hamburger with chips at FedEx Field. At the Ravens game, you can enjoy a fine crabcake for $9 or pit-style barbecue for $8.
At FedEx field a Hooters restaurant fills part of the club level, and there are do-it-yourself bloody marys for $8. The Redskins club level is comfortable, with big cushy chairs and couches. You can sit there, sip a bloody mary, and watch the game on TV.
But you'd miss the Redskinettes. The Redskins cheerleaders aren't quite at the level of Dallas's, but they aren't far behind. The Ravens cheerleaders weren't bad. There were a few more brunettes, and part of their uniform was Ravens-colored baseball hats.
The Redskins cheerleaders look like women you might meet at the bar at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. The Ravens cheerleaders looked like girls you might find working at the McCormick spice factory. Maybe not as gorgeous, but probably more fun.
THE RAVENS ENDED UP winning their game against Atlanta 24-0. The Redskins game ended with the Washington quarterback throwing an interception that allowed Carolina to come from behind and tie. Then the Redskins collapsed in overtime.
Where does that leave me, the football fan who lives in Maryland? It's hard after 35 years to throw away an allegiance to what has been your local team, even during a bad patch. Or especially during a bad patch.
One has to hope that Snyder at long last will learn enough patience to build a strong front office and a stable team, and then to let the fans enjoy the games without feeling like they're trapped in marketing hell.
The Ravens have a lot going for them. But they are Baltimore's team. I'll stay with the Redskins. Washington sports fans have to suffer. That goes with living here.