- Matthew 6:24
Before NFL training camps started this summer, ESPN's power ratings ranked the Baltimore Ravens fifth and the Washington Redskins third. Two weeks onto the regular season, I think it's safe to say that the experts at the Worldwide Leader were half right. And while I am happy that the Ravens appear to be blowing up, as the kids like to say, my primary emotion for the Redskins is not anger, but sorrow.
I moved to Baltimore area 11 years ago but have clung to my Northern Virginia sports roots. Growing up outside Washington, D.C., I was a typical fan. I lived and died with the 'Skins, cheered the Bullets to their lone NBA Championship, and pretty much ignored the Capitals. One of my earliest childhood memories is of Mike Bass scoring Washington's only touchdown in Super Bowl VII, an intereception return after Miami placekicker Garo Yepremian tried to throw a pass on a botched field goal attempt; but I came of age in the glorious Joe Gibbs era, watching the Redskins won three Super Bowls. My blood ran burgundy and gold, and I will be a fan for life.
But the regime of Daniel Snyder has left my football faith shaking like old RFK Stadium in an NFC Championship Game. In a tragedy worthy of Sophocles, Snyder is the boy who grew up to realize the dream of owning his favorite sports team only to set it on a course for failure. From dumping Marty Schottenheimer for Steve Spurrier to signing multiple free agents long past their primes, Snyder has mismanaged his franchise like a perennially bottom-dwelling fantasy football owner (ironically, the market value of the franchise has skyrocketed since he took over). Even the moves that looked like they might work out ended up backfiring.
And so, when he brought Joe Gibbs back to town last year, I did not rejoice as so many did. Indeed, my first thought was, "If this doesn't work, he must sell the team and will never be able to watch football again." Because if Gibbs fails, Snyder will have marred the greatest chapter in Washington sports history, and even if he finds success after Gibbs, he will never make up for the damage. This is not like Jerry Jones bouncing Tom Landry to make way for the Jimmy Johnson in Dallas. That was typical of the Darwinian nature of professional sports. This would be like Red Auerbach returning to the Celtics' bench and floundering in the middle of the league. It's unthinkable.
But that appears to be what will happen. When the Redskins visited Texas Stadium last season, Redskins QB Mark Brunell shocked the Cowboys with two astonishing touchdown passes in the final minutes of a Monday night game, setting the tone for a respectable season which carried over to high hopes for this one. And so, as the Redskins again struggled to find any kind of offense at Dallas on Sunday night, I harkened back to that unlikely miracle. But that's the thing about miracles, you're not allowed to expect them, they have to catch you by surprise. With no miracle, the Redskins are now 0-2 in what some think is the league's toughest division. Clinton Portis is hurt, Brunell has no one's confidence, and the defense that kept the Redskins in so many games appears to be vulnerable. I know they rallied to make the playoffs after a slow start last season, but my inner classicist tells me that this tragedy will only end when Daniel Snyder blinds himself with his Redskins belt buckle.
On the other end of the pigskin spectrum, I find the Ravens, and a slowly growing affinity. I was not an instant fan when they came to town in 1996, not like the legions of hungry Colts' fans who had been licking their wounds since Bob Irsay hijacked their treasured franchise to Indianapolis. I had my Redskins and didn't need another team to root for. I cheered for them when they won the Super Bowl, mainly because it came against the hated Giants, but still they were not my team.
But having children changes everything, even your sports allegiances. My sons are surrounded by Ravens fans and Ravens propaganda. We have been to a Ravens training camp and last season we went to a game. So, like my father before me, who left the Knicks for the Bullets, I find myself more and more interested in the prospects of the local team.
And they play a style of defense-first, grind-it-out offense that I like, and while many pillory Brian Billick for the ineptitude of his offensive game plan, I really don't mind it. For all his record-breaking performances, Peyton Manning has yet to get to the Super Bowl (he has, however, run roughshod over the league in commercial endorsements).
This year's Ravens team is intriguing. The defense is still at the heart of its success, even though Marvin Lewis left years ago. And while Ray Lewis is only the third-best linebacker, he remains the public face of the team, the guy the cameras go to even as Ed Reed, Adalius Thomas and Bart Scott make the big plays
(In fairness, Lewis still gets it done sometimes; his fourth quarter sack of Tampa Bay's Chris Simms will stay with the young QB for quite some time. The camera from the backfield captured the play perfectly: one moment Simms was calmly looking at a wall of protection from his offensive linemen, trying to read the defense, and in the next instant, Lewis was roaring up the middle, leaving no time for Simms to do anything but fetalize.)
The signing of Steve McNair this summer energized the hopes of Ravens fans, but the first two games have shown that McNair is not going to change the way this team wins. They shut out Tampa Bay and held Oakland to six points. The offense has been inconsistent in almost every aspect; the line has been just okay, Jamal Lewis still looks tentative at times and McNair's throws are more out-of-sync than I had expected. But the defense has devoured ts opponents. Of course it helps when the other team fumbles two snaps from center in the first quarter, as the Raiders' Aaron Brooks did on Sunday. The Ravens first three possessions began inside the Raiders 40 and they came away with three field goals. At some point, that's more pressure than a defense can handle.
I'll be tracking both teams closely from here on out, the Ravens because I think they might be for real this year, the Redskins because, hey, they are still my team.