Another year. Another superb Washington Capitals regular season ending in playoff disappointment. Another year of wondering whether the Capitals will get over the conference semifinal hump. Another year of fans left asking questions starting with “what if.”
“What if the puck bounced this way instead of that way?”
“What if the Caps didn’t take that penalty?”
“What if professional sports teams in the DC area are cursed?”
That last question seems to loom larger and larger as we become farther and farther removed from 1992, the year in which a major professional sports team from the DC area last won a championship. Since then, the franchises in the four major professional sports leagues here have endured varying degrees of mediocrity, from historical ineptitude, to irrelevance, to unfulfilled promise, to utter heartbreak.
The championship droughts of professional sports teams in places like Cleveland and Buffalo have been well-documented in American sports lore. Countless articles, sports talk radio rants, TV news stories, and even feature-length documentaries have been made about them. That the Browns’ 1964 NFL championship is Cleveland’s most recent major sports title is common knowledge, as was the relocation of the Browns to Baltimore (or more technically, a suspension of the franchise) after the 1995 NFL season. That the Bills lost four consecutive Super Bowls and that the Sabres were victims of a missed crease violation on Brett Hull’s Stanley Cup-winning goal has been woven into the fabric of all stories recounting historically tortured sports cities. Sports fans in these two cities have had to endure the most painful defeats of any city in the country.
While not nearly on the same level as what Cleveland and Buffalo have had to endure, the Washington, DC area sports franchises collectively hold a dubious drought of their own. 1998 was the last time that a team had made it to the championship round of any of the four major sports, which is the longest current drought of any city with at least three major sports teams. In fact, that was also the last time a team here has even gone as far as the conference championship/LCS round, a point in which every sports city with at least three teams has since passed.
In 2002, Bill Simmons, then writing for ESPN, devised a list of 13 “levels of losing,” used to measure various levels of anguish and devastation sports teams’ losses can bring to a fanbase, from the benign “happy to be there” kind all the way to the downright tragic (in a sports sense, of course) that gets replayed in all-time sports montages for the rest of time. Simmons revised the list to 16 levels in 2007.
Having begun to follow professional sports at around 1996 and 1997 and having growing up in the DC area, I’ve remembered more than enough big losses from teams in this area, and while many who are older than me could probably remember further back in time, I’m sticking to anything that occurred since 1992. I will also not include collegiate sports here, as the DC area consists of two (three, eventually?) different states, and the transient nature of this region does not really allow for any one school’s sports teams to unite the city. Thus, the University of Maryland’s infamous “Gone in 60 Seconds” game, or even the Final Four matchup with Duke that same year (or others from Maryland or Georgetown or any other local university) will not appear here. While I appreciate what DC United has done, I would still hesitate to consider Major League Soccer a major professional sports league in this country for the sake of this piece, despite the league’s name.
With that, let’s get started.
LEVEL 16: THE PRINCETON PRINCIPLE
When a Cinderella team hangs tough against a heavy favorite, but the favorite somehow prevails in the end (like Princeton almost toppling Georgetown in the ’89 NCAAs). … This one stings because you had low expectations, but those gritty underdogs raised your hopes. … Also works for boxing, especially in situations like Balboa-Creed I (“He doesn’t know it’s a damn show! He thinks it’s a damn fight!”). … The moment that always sucks you in: in college hoops, when they show shots of the bench scrubs leaping up and down and hugging each other during the “These guys won’t go away!” portion of the game, before the collapse at the end.
I’ve decided to add two examples here due to some similarities between both cases, as they were both against the same opponent in the same venue, with the team in question taking similar paths to the playoffs (and although one of those teams was not as much of an underdog in the particular game, they had a more dramatic path to the playoffs, and as such, I’ll begin with that one).
2007 may have been the most resilient team that Joe Gibbs has coached in his second time around in DC. It seemed like a miracle that this team even got to the playoffs after starting the season 5-7 and having to overcome a number of injuries to key starters, including at quarterback, two positions on the offensive line, linebacker, and cornerback. And all of that doesn’t even include the unspeakably tragic death of Sean Taylor late in the season. After the loss to Buffalo, Washington reeled off four straight wins against potential playoff contenders to get the sixth and final seed in the playoffs, all with Todd Collins–a quarterback who until that year hadn’t thrown a pass in a regular season game in three years and hadn’t started a game in 10 years–playing efficiently down the stretch.
While they didn’t start off particularly well offensively, the Redskins’ defense kept the game within reach entering the fourth quarter, trailing 13-0 in Qwest Field, one of the most difficult stadiums for away teams to play in. An 84-yard drive capped by an Antwaan Randle-El touchdown pass made it 13-7, and after a LaRon Landry interception on the Seahawks’ ensuing drive, Collins hit Santana Moss for a go-ahead touchdown to put the ‘Skins up 14-13. Momentum had shifted so far to Washington that they wound up getting the ball back on the ensuing kickoff after Seattle had misplayed the ball thanks to a tricky wind. Even with the favorable field position, they didn’t get any points from it. Shaun Suisham hooked a makeable 30-yard field goal to the left.
Despite the setback, Washington would get another interception from Landry, but Seattle made a defensive stop and scored a touchdown and two-point conversion on the next drive to lead it 21-14. Collins’ good fortune ran out eventually after a pair of pick-sixes–his first interceptions thrown all season, mind you–as Seattle would cruise to victory. This turned out to be Gibbs’ final NFL game, as he would walk away from the final year of his contract that offseason. Despite how it ended, this 2007 team had an awful lot to be proud of, given the difficult circumstances they played through.
Case 2: Seattle 20, Washington 10 (2005-06 NFC Divisional Round)
After dropping an overtime game at home against San Diego, Washington stood at 5-6 and were in serious danger of missing the playoffs for the second straight year in Gibbs’ return to the team. But with Mark Brunell finding the fountain of youth, Clinton Portis and Santana Moss having breakout years, and the defense beginning to come into its own, the team won five consecutive must-win games and made the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
After knocking off Tampa Bay in the previous round, Washington had a tough task ahead going into Seattle for the Divisional round. The Seahawks had the best record in the NFC at 13-3 and were favorites to get to the Super Bowl out of the NFC. Seattle was an 8.5 point favorite, but they lost a fumble in the red zone early on, and they later lost league MVP Shaun Alexander to a concussion, and the playing field began to level.
In the 4th quarter, Seattle’s lead was cut to 17-10, and the ‘Skins recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, but they could not take advantage, stalling in the Seattle red zone and settling for a 36-yard field goal from John Hall…that he missed. The Seahawks effectively put the game away with a long drive ending in a field goal, but how many people expected Brunell to turn back the clock on his career and have the season he had? While Washington returned to the playoffs two years later, this was their most successful team in the Gibbs II era.
LEVEL 15: THE ACHILLES HEEL
This defeat transcends the actual game, because it revealed something larger about your team, a fatal flaw exposed for everyone to see. … Flare guns are fired, red flags are raised, doubt seeps into your team. … Usually the beginning of the end. (You don’t fully comprehend this until you’re reflecting back on it.)
Case: Detroit 37, Washington 25 (2010 NFL season, Week 8)
Before the 2010 season, Philadelphia raised eyebrows around the league when they decided to trade Donovan McNabb, arguably their best quarterback in franchise history, within the division to Washington months after their coach Andy Reid insisted that McNabb would return to the team. As analysts initially panned the move from the Eagles’ standpoint, fans in this area were once again excited by their team making a splash move in the offseason with the hopes of a competitive team, months after hiring two-time Super Bowl champion coach Mike Shanahan.
McNabb had a pedestrian start to the 2010 season with his touchdown numbers falling and interceptions rising from previous years (this due in large part to the change in scenery), but the ‘Skins were 4-3 and well in the mix at the top of the NFC East. They were leading Detroit 25-20 in the 4th quarter and had the ball with less than five minutes remaining, but on 2nd and 10, McNabb tried to force the ball through coverage to his intended receiver, but his pass was intercepted, and the Lions drove down the field to score a touchdown and take a 28-25 lead. McNabb was unable to move the ball on the next drive, but the defense held Detroit to just three points with 1:45 left, so there was still time for a comeback.
Only it wouldn’t be McNabb trying to lead the comeback.
Shanahan would replace McNabb with Rex Grossman (yes, the Rex Grossman who gravy-trained his way to a Super Bowl appearance with the Bears while inhibiting whatever shred of an offense they ever had), citing Grossman’s apparent knowledge of the two-minute offense and McNabb’s “cardiovascular conditioning” not being up to par. Fittingly, on the very first snap Grossman takes, he gets sacked, fumbles the football, and Ndamukong Suh recovers it and takes it the rest of the way for a touchdown to seal a Lions victory.
Despite signing an incentive-laden contract that only guaranteed $3.5 million after that game, McNabb appeared to be nearing the end of his career. The ‘Skins languished thereafter, going 2-6 the rest of the way to finish 6-10. McNabb was demoted to third string with three games left in the season. And this was the first of several instances of Shanahan struggling to explain himself after making questionable decisions regarding his starting quarterbacks during his tenure in Washington.
LEVEL 14: THE ALPHA DOG
It might have been a devastating loss, but at least you could take solace that a superior player made the difference in the end. … Unfortunately, he wasn’t playing for your team. … You feel more helpless here than anything. … For further reference, see any of MJ’s games in the NBA Finals against Utah (’97 and ’98).
Case: Washington vs. Chicago (1997 NBA Playoffs, first round)
As this was my first full year following the NBA, I was vaguely aware of this playoff series. For the Bulls, this series was supposed to be a formality on the road to repeating as champions under Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, and the rest of the team. While they didn’t quite match their NBA-record-setting (at the time) 72 wins, they did tie for the second-best record in NBA history at 69-13. And there was no way that they would let themselves become the second 1-seed to go down to the 8-seed. (Just imagine the Gheorghe Muresan equivalent of Dikembe Mutombo lying on the floor, holding the ball in the air.)
Despite the sweep, Washington was extremely competitive in this series and even held a lead in the third quarter of Game 2. But the Bullets went cold from the field that quarter and lost the lead, and in the fourth quarter, Michael Jordan went full MJ, scoring 20 of the team’s 23 points to cap off a 55-point night.
Game 3 came before a raucous crowd at the Capital Centre (or whatever the name of the airline that bought the naming rights to it was), and the teams were neck-and-neck throughout the game. Rod Strickland led the team with 24 points and Tracy Murray caught fire off the bench and added 20 of his own. Washington even pulled ahead by nine for a time late in the game. But once again, this wasn’t just any 1-seed the Bullets were playing. This was a team with three Hall of Famers (not including a 43-year-old Robert Parish who hardly played in his final NBA season), Jordan did his usual thing, and Scottie Pippen turned it on with 16 of his 20 points coming in the second half, including beating Calbert Cheaney along the baseline and delivering a series-clinching two-handed dunk over Harvey Grant with just seconds left.
With budding stars Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, this was thought to be just the beginning for a team on the rise. That, however, never materialized, as the newly-rebranded Wizards missed the playoffs the next year, Webber was traded (which still makes zero sense), and Howard was given that massive contract. No wonder this team underachieved for so long between then and the Gilbert Arenas years.
LEVEL 13: THE RABBIT’S FOOT
Now we’re starting to get into “Outright Painful” territory. … This applies to those frustrating games and/or series in which every single break seemingly goes against your team. … Unbelievably frustrating. … You know that sinking, “Oh, God, I’ve been here before” feeling when something unfortunate happens, when your guard immediately goes shooting up? … Yeah, I’m wincing just writing about it.
Case: Washington vs. New York Rangers (2013 NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals)
In one of the many series that have gone 7 games in the Alex Ovechkin era, the Capitals have had the supposed benefit of home ice advantage, but they’ve lost more Game 7s at home than won. Washington won the first two games of the series, but at that point, most of their good fortune had run out. They couldn’t avoid taking the silliest of penalties, especially in the games at the Garden (part of it was their own doing and part of it could be the product of very few, if any, calls going their way), and the Rangers had out-powerplayed them 28 to 16 throughout the series. The Caps also outshot them 226-205. But Henrik Lundqvist, as you would expect from him during the postseason, had his Superman cape on in goal and posted consecutive shutouts when the Blueshirts were facing elimination.
Game 6 was especially frustrating. Despite the Rangers getting the only five power plays in the game, the Caps fought all five of them off, but despite a few big chances to score, it was a Derick Brassard shot that glanced off the body of Steve Oleksy and completely caught Braden Holtby off guard that stood as the only goal in the game.
Washington also had many of the early chances in Game 7, but again, Lundqvist was a man on a mission, and when he starts making saves with his skate blade, you know you’re in trouble. It also didn’t help that Holtby was letting in soft goals from fourth-liners like Arron Asham and then giving up two goals a little more than two minutes apart in the 2nd period. At that point, the Rangers wrested full control of the game, and Caps fans found the team in a familiar position: congratulating their opponents for moving on (while probably muttering a few choice words unsuitable for this blog under their breaths).
Stay tuned for Part 2, to be released tomorrow.