The Redskins are now on notice that their ownership of the city of Washington and the surrounding suburbs is not as ironclad as it once was.
When Lars Eller poked the puck into an open net in the third period and the Capitals were able to hang on to take the Stanley Cup, the Redskins were no longer the team in town that had last won a championship.
That team is now the Caps, who came into existence in 1974, the year after the Redskins made their first Super Bowl appearance. When the Caps made their debut, the Redskins were in the middle of a 10-4 season. They would make the playoffs, but they were one and done when they got there.
In fact, they were in the midst of a run that before this year could be called Caps-like. They made the playoffs five times in six years. They were one and done four times, getting their only two playoff wins on the way to their Super Bowl VII loss to the 17-0 Dolphins.
It wasn’t until the 1982 season that the Redskins broke through, winning the Super Bowl in January 1983. A couple of months later the Capitals, who had needed a “Save the Caps” campaign to stick around in Washington, made the playoffs for the first time.
In fact, the Caps made the playoffs every year during the Redskins glory run of three Super Bowl wins in 10 years. But, like the 70’s Redskins, they didn’t do much when they got there. The furthest they got was the conference final and they got swept by the Bruins. With the Redskins rolling out championship parades every few years, they easily owned the town.
The Redskins have fallen on hard times on the field since then. Since their last Super Bowl win following the 1991 season, they have won just three playoff games and haven’t made it to the conference final. But they still have managed to occupy the most print space, talk radio time, TV time, and web traffic around Washington. Part of it had to do with the holdover from the glory years and a lot of it had to do with the fact that the NFL was the undisputed king of the sports world.
But perhaps most importantly, no other team in town took the leap that would grab the attention away from the Redskins on a long-term basis. The Bullets/Wizards won a title 40 years ago, returned to the NBA Finals the next year, and haven’t advanced as far as the conference finals since then. The Nationals came along in 2005 and while they have been a great regular-season team since 2012, they have been unable to win a playoff series. And while the Caps did make one Stanley Cup Final, they were promptly swept by the Red Wings.
So, the Redskins have been able to remain atop the sports heap in the DMV despite persistent dysfunction that generated much more drama off the field than on it. Their TV ratings have declined, and fans of the visiting team routinely invade FedEx Field in large numbers. The NFL’s perch atop the sports world looks vulnerable, with the anthem controversy, concussion concerns, domestic violence situations, and other factors eroding the league’s popularity.
Are the Redskins vulnerable? Can the Capitals ride their championship to the top of the DC sports heap?
Even with the Stanley Cup to stand on as a head start, it would be a difficult battle for the Caps to capture the level of year-round attention that the Redskins get. It’s not all their fault; they are an entertaining, likable team. But hockey is at best the fourth most popular sport in America, perhaps lower if you split football and basketball into the college and pro levels. Hockey is much more than a niche sport but there are fewer die-hard fans of the sport than there are of football, baseball, and basketball. One title is unlikely to vault the Caps to superiority in the market.
However, this does not mean that the Redskins can keep on frustrating fans indefinitely, displaying dysfunction while their peak seasons are near .500 without a playoff win. If the city sees Alexander Ovechkin skating around a rink with the Stanley Cup held over his head one or two more times in the next several years, if the Nats can start to play as well in the playoffs as they do during the regular season, or if the Wizards can get it together, the Redskins will find their relevance severely diminished.
And by the time that happens, it may be too late. If the Redskins want to remain the kings of the DC sports scene—and trust me, things like that matter to key decision makers in Ashburn—they need to start now and function like a normal, successful NFL team. Now is not the time to outline what they need to do to accomplish that, but I think most of you know anyway.
Congratulations to the Caps for setting the bar high. It’s high time the Redskins and the other local teams to get busy trying to meet that standard.
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