With all four major professional sports and numerous colleges in the area, it’s tough to boil down the list of stories into a top five – but here’s the list I’ve come up with. It leaves plenty of room for debates, additions and maybe a few subtractions.
5. The Little Boys Go Dancing While the Big Boys Stay Home Alone
With five Final Four appearances between them and a National Championship each, Georgetown and Maryland have been the dominant local college basketball programs for the last 50 years. One or both are usually in the NCAA Tournament in March, but in 2014, both were left out of the field of 68. Georgetown finished 18-15, 8-10 in the re-configured Big East. They had a strong backcourt with D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Markel Starks averaging more than 17 points a game. But starting center Joshua Smith was an early-season academic casualty and the Hoyas never really recovered. They settled for a second round exit from the NIT with a loss at Florida State.
Maryland, playing it’s final season in the ACC, finished 8th in the conference at 9-9 and were 17-15 overall. That wasn’t even enough to get into the NIT. After the season, the Terps had five players with eligibility leave, including second leading scorer Seth Allen and leading rebounder Charles Mitchell. Nick Faust, Shaquille Clear and Roddy Peters, thought to be key parts of Coach Mark Turgeon’s rebuilding plan, also left.
Meantime, two of the local mid majors danced. George Washington finished 24-9, 11-5 in the Atlantic 10, good enough for an at large bid. The Colonials benefitted greatly from Indiana transfer Maurice Creek, who led them in scoring and hit the winning shot in an upset of Maryland early in the season. They played well, but lost to Memphis 71-66 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. American University finished second in the Patriot League to Boston University, but won at BU in the championship game 55-36. The Eagles were thrown to the wolves in the NCAA’s, falling to Final Four bound Wisconsin 75-35.
4. Abra Cadabra, The Wizards Magically Go From Bad to Good
After a 1-7 start, the cry was, “here they go again.” Even Tony Kornheiser’s annual prediction of a 9-20 start seemed like it would be a tough stretch to get to. But led by John Wall, the Wizards woke up and started to click. They finished 44-38, good for second place in the Southeast Division. And then for only the second time in 25 years, they won a first round playoff series, knocking out the Chicago Bulls in five games. The season finally ended with a second round loss to the more experienced Indiana Pacers, but not before the Wiz made it interesting, winning two of the six games. Wall emerged as an All Star, averaging 19.3 points and 8.8 assists a game. Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat both had big years, and while Nene played only 53 games, he came up huge in the playoffs. And late season pickups Drew Gooden and Andre Miller gave them unexpected help off the bench. After the win or else year, Coach Randy Wittman was rewarded with a new contract.
3. Caps Overhaul: Ted’s Patience Finally Wears Out
After sticking with the general manager he inherited when he bought the team through disappointing playoff exits year after year, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis finally fired George McPhee after 17 years. Leonsis said in late April after finishing one spot out of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, “We were left with the overall impression that the team wasn’t trending towards being able to compete for the Stanley Cup.”
Out the door with McPhee went Coach Adam Oates, who had a year left on his three-year contract. Their replacements both had Caps ties. Brian MacLellan, after seven years as assistant general manager under McPhee, moved into the GM job. And Barry Trotz, recently fired after 15 years as head coach in Nashville became the new head coach. Trotz had served as minor league coach in the Caps system before going to Nashville.
2. Matt Williams Learns on the Job the Hard Way
When 70 plus Davey Johnson retired as manager of the Nationals at the end of the 2013 season, General Manager Mike Rizzo went young, giving Matt Williams his first managerial job. Williams raised some eyebrows when he shifted his lineup from day to day in the early part of the season. He also, on the day the Nats handed out programs with Bryce Harper’s picture and the caption, “Nothing but hustle” on them, benched Harper for not running out a ground ball. But he earned his Manager of the Year award by guiding the Nats to the best record in the National League with 96 wins. The regular season ended with a blaze of glory as Jordan Zimmerman threw the first no hitter in Nats history on the final day of the season. It seemed that everything Williams touched in September turned to gold. But his golden touch disappeared in October. The Nats went down in five games to the eventual World Series Champion Giants. Williams will forever be second-guessed for yanking Zimmerman from game two with only one out to go. The Nats were up 1-0, with Zimmerman having thrown 17 and two thirds innings of shutout ball in five days. Rather than trust his stud, Williams went with his “plan” and called on closer Drew Storen. The tying run scored and the game went on – for another NINE innings. Brandon Belt homered off Tanner Roark, who by then was pitching after midnight on the day he turned 28. The Giants won 2-1 in five hours and 51 minutes, the longest postseason game in major league history. Harper hit three homers in the series, but Adam LaRoche, Jayson Werth, Denard Span, Wilson Ramos and Ian Desmond were a combined nine for 89 with 24 strikeouts and a .101 batting average. The Nats scored only nine runs in the 45 innings of the series.
Like when the television show, “Bewitched” changed Dicks (Dick Sargent replaced Dick York as Elizabeth’s Montgomery’s husband Darrin Stephens in 1969. C’mon get your mind out of the gutter) the script didn’t seem to change much when Jay Gruden replaced Mike Shanahan as head coach of the Redskins in January. After a brief honeymoon with quarterback Robert Griffin III, it wasn’t long before it became clear the coach and QB were not seeing eye to eye. After an ugly 27-7 home loss to woeful Tampa Bay on November 16th, Griffin said, “Great quarterbacks, the Peytons, the Aaron Rodgers, those guys don’t play well if their guys don’t play well.”
A day later Gruden responded by saying Griffin needs to worry about himself and then unloaded with, “Robert has some fundamental flaws…he’s not even close to being good enough to what we expect from the quarterback position.”
The game was closer, but Griffin’s performance wasn’t much better the following week in a 17-13 loss at San Francisco. Gruden had seen enough and went back to Colt McCoy, who had provided the season’s highlight by winning at Dallas on the last Monday night in October. McCoy put up 27 points and Indianapolis, but the defense was dreadful in the 49-27 loss.
Even a 24-0 loss at home to St. Louis, which included a serious neck injury to McCoy wasn’t enough to put RGIII back on the field. Bad neck and all, McCoy was still named the starter for the December 14th home game against the Giants. It seemed to be a clear sign that Gruden had absolutely no desire to see Griffin back on the field. But he had no choice when McCoy’s neck held up for only one series. Griffin wasn’t great, but better than he had been in his last go-round before being benched. The Redskins dropped to 3-11 with the 24-13 loss.
However, the performance was enough to have some of us rethink thoughts that there is no way for Gruden and Griffin to work together in 2015. Now with a pre-Christmas 27-24 shocking win over Philadelphia, it looks like that’s a done deal. Gruden even used words like “great” and “excellent” to describe RGIII’s 16 of 23 for 220 yard performance.
Perhaps 2014 is ending just like it started – full of hope.