They are Washington sports media icons. Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon are not natives, but have spent most of their lives in D.C., working together for more than 20 years at the Washington Post and for the last 13 years – co-hosting the popular “Pardon the Interruption” show on ESPN. The following conversation took place on their Monday show:
Tony – I’ve been in Washington 35 years. I’ve seen the Redskins when they’ve been great, and I’ve seen them when they’ve been bad. I have never felt like I do now that they are hopeless.
Michael – Rock bottom?
Tony – They appear hopeless.
That word – “hopeless” has been tossed around more often than I can remember in regards to the Redskins this week. The Skins have been 3-10 several times before, but never has it felt quite as, well…as hopeless as it does right now. Has any other season felt as hopeless as this one does?
Having watched almost every game for the last 50 years, I’d have to say no. But there are some seasons that have come close since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. Here now is a look back at hopeless- looking seasons since the merger:
1970 – Record-6-10, coach – Bill Austin
This was a year that began with the tragic death of Coach Vince Lombardi two weeks before the season opener. Austin took over on an interim basis, hoping to carry over the momentum of Lombardi’s 7-5-2 season the year before. Quarterback Sonny Jurgensen was coming off a career year and running back Larry Brown was an emerging star. They managed to get off to a 4-3 start, but then endured a five-game losing streak, which included a 34-0 loss at Dallas. Even though the Skins finished with a pair of wins and Brown became the first Redskin to rush for more than a thousand yards in a season, there was a feeling that the window Lombardi had opened for winning was now closed. That feeling didn’t last long. Two weeks after the season ended, George Allen was hired and the next two decades produced mostly winners, including five teams that played in Super Bowls.
1980 – Record-6-10, coach – Jack Pardee
The year began with a hangover that got worse. The hangover was from the disappointment of blowing a 34-21 lead in the fourth quarter of the 1979 finale at Dallas. The 35-31 comeback victory put the Cowboys in the playoffs and knocked the Redskins out. Shortly after training camp began, John Riggins retired in a salary dispute. The season never got off the ground. Included in the 3-8 start were losses of 23-0 to St. Louis, 39-14 to Denver and 24-0 to Philadelphia. They won their last three, including a 40-17 win over San Diego. But it was too late to save Pardee’s job. His replacement really didn’t excite too many people. After all, Joe Gibbs had been a career assistant. And things really looked hopeless when Gibbs started the 1981 season at 0-5. Fortunately owner Jack Kent Cooke was patient. Gibbs went on to win three Super Bowls and is the greatest coach in the history of the franchise.
1993 – Record-4-12, coach – Richie Petitbon
Gibbs’ retirement in March of ’93 was a stunner, but Petitbon was the obvious choice as a replacement. He was as good at coaching the defense as Gibbs was at coaching the offense. “The Bone” promised, “business as usual,” referring to all the winning that had gone on in the previous decade. His start was great – a 35-16 blowout of Dallas in the opener. That was the beginning and the end. The injuries began piling up on the aging roster and they proceeded to drop their next six. Four days after the 4-12 season ended, Petitbon was fired. With the salary cap coming in, the roster would have to be overhauled. Everyone knew rebuilding lay ahead. But they seemed to have the right guy to take over. After coaching the offense on the two previous Super Bowl winners at Dallas, Norv Turner was hired as Petitbon’s replacement. It actually turned out to be the start of a miserable two decade run. A hopeless feeling was in fact, warranted.
1998 – Record-6-10, coach – Norv Turner
After going through obligatory rebuilding years of 3-13 and 6-10 in his first two years, Turner got painfully close to having playoff teams in 1996 and 97. However, records of 9-7 and 8-7-1 weren’t quite enough to do it. Finally 1998 seemed to be the year. Quarterback bust Heath Shuler was dumped and general manager Charley Casserly loaded up on the defensive line with Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson and NFC defensive player of the year Dana Stubblefield. The hope soon died. The Redskins started off 0-7, including a 41-7 loss in Minnesota that Turner called, “totally inept.” Many called for Turner’s firing, but he managed to win six of his last nine and was brought back for 1999. Some of us had a hopeless feeling seeing the under-achieving Turner return for a sixth year, but did deliver a division title. The next year (2000) new owner Dan Snyder loaded up on free agents and finished a disappointing 8-8, firing Turner along the way.
2003 – Record-5-11, coach – Steve Spurrier
Again the Redskins loaded up on free agents, mostly from the Jets. It seemed to work – for a while. After beating the Patriots 20-17, the “Old Ball Coach” had a 3-1 team. They went on to lose six of their next seven. Spurrier would later admit he’d thrown in the towel mentally halfway through the season and knew he would resign at the end of the year. That’s exactly what Spurrier did from a golf course days after the season ended. Even though Spurrier had proved the NFL wasn’t for him, his leaving did lead to a hopeless feeling. Names of retread coaches like Ray Rhodes were thrown around. It was nothing to get excited about. And then, the unthinkable happened. Joe Gibbs returned. Anybody that had a hopeless feeling just wasn’t paying attention. Even though Gibbs didn’t recapture the magic of his first run, he did produce two playoff teams, something no other Snyder-employed coach has done.
2009 – Record-4-12, coach – Jim Zorn
Gibbs’ second retirement after the 2007 season, left Snyder in a bad spot. He convinced himself that Zorn would be a good choice. He wasn’t. Amazingly, Zorn got the Skins off to a 6-2 start in 2008, but he finished the year 8-8. The 2009 season was a complete circus. It included a loss in Detroit to break the Lions 19 game losing streak and a 14-6 loss at home to lowly Kansas City. After the game, Zorn was stripped of his play-calling duties, which went to former bingo caller Sherman Lewis. Though the end of the season was a complete joke, with the famed “Swinging gate” call in a 45-12 loss to the Giants and a 17-0 loss to the Cowboys, the hopeless feeling wasn’t like the one that exists today. It was pretty certain that Mike Shanahan was on his way. Shanahan would fix everything. He did. Briefly.
2013 – Record-3-13, coach – Mike Shanahan
All that Shanahan had fixed, blew up. The circus atmosphere he’d been hired to fix, was right back. The season ended with rumors and back-stabbing and the ouster of Shanahan with a year left on his contract. Ironically, things didn’t seem hopeless. Shanahan and his offensive coordinator son Kyle were pointed to as the villains in the downfall of Robert Griffin III. The feeling was if the Shanahans were kicked out, all would be good again with RGIII. Be careful what you wish for.