There’s a funny difference between a sports team’s history and its legacy. A legacy is something transmitted from past predecessors. A history is a series of past events that happened in connection with someone or something. As you can see, while they can and frequently do run parallel to each other, they don’t necessarily run hand in hand, and when it comes to sports, one can easily be muddled by the other. Take the NFL’s Washington Redskins, for example. This is a team with a rich legacy which includes the first NFL marching band – still one of only two – one of the first fight songs, the first true passing quarterback, the first full-season television deal, and the first Super Bowl-winning black quarterback. Despite the public relations lumps the team keeps taking from its bullheaded current owner, the Redskins leave a legacy of winning, innovation, and competence.
The Washington Redskins’ history tells a much different story: Poor draft choices, racism that went beyond just the team name, the most lopsided loss in league history, and a team that won its five titles in two distinct ten-year periods.
The story of the Washington Redskins begins with the Cleveland Indians. No, not THOSE Cleveland Indians. We’re talking about a whole different outfit here. See, this was in 1931, and since the NFL back then was founded just ten years before as the ruling body of a fourth-tier professional sport that nobody in their right mind gave a shit about, its teams were frequently able to get away with copping their names from the local baseball squads. The Indians were actually an old barnstorming team founded in 1887. Although they bore a locale name and a nick – they were called the Orange/Newark Tornadoes – they also played all their games on the road until the NFL got its hands on it after the 1930 season. The original plan was to plop them down in the middle of Cleveland for good once they found a new owner for it. They found their guy in George Preston Marshall, but there was one problem: Marshall didn’t want to put the team in Cleveland. Then there was another problem: The NFL couldn’t find anyone who DID want to put the Indians in Cleveland. So the NFL, having no power whatsoever back then, let Marshall have his way and take the team to Boston. He named the team the Boston Braves, after their baseball landlords, but eventually changed their name to the Redskins to prevent confusion between his team and the baseball team. As for Cleveland, they eventually got their NFL team. Which they lost. Then they got a new one. Which they also lost. Then they got another new one. Or at least one which claims to be an NFL team.
The first few years of existence for the Boston Redskins were pretty inauspicious. They broke even a couple of years before a 2-8-1 record in 1936. 1936 was the first-ever NFL draft. The Skins had the second overall pick, which they used on Alabama blocking back Riley Smith. Since the first pick of the draft, Jay Berwanger, decided not to play professional football, Smith became the first draft pick to play in the NFL. The Skins also drafted Wayne Millner and hired Ray Flaherty as their head coach. After starting the season 4-5, the Redskins won out, winning their final three games to go 7-5 and win their first Eastern Division Championship. That put them into their first NFL Championship game. The Skins were slated to have home field advantage for the game, but some 4813 fans showed to the last game of the year in Boston. And the Redskins were playing at Fenway Park. So Marshall, royally pissed, waived his home field advantage to the opposing Green Bay Packers. The game was played at New York City’s Polo Grounds and the Redskins were crushed 21-6. That was the team’s most productive year in Boston, and it also happened to be their last.
During the offseason, a frustrated George Preston Marshall moved the Redskins to Washington. He also made one of the most important draft picks in team history by nabbing Sammy Baugh. Baugh was an important pickup because he excelled at something that was still relatively rare in the league at the time: He threw forward passes. Although the forward pass was legalized in the early 1900’s, coaches had been slow to adopt and accept it, and most people knowledgeable in football saw it as acceptable only as a surprise attack in desperate third-down situations. When the Redskins picked up Baugh, they changed that by making the forward pass into the primary way of attacking. In the 1937 season, the Redskins and Baugh rode the pass to an 8-3 record, a division title, and upon beating the Chicago Bears 13-3, their first NFL Championship.
The Skins were one of the NFL’s most dominant teams from 1940 to 1945, a span in which they appeared in the Championship another four times. The 1940 Championship warrants particular mention because of the sheer lack of balance. Three weeks before the title game, Washington defeated their title game opponents, the Bears, 7-3. Marshall, unable to keep his big-ass mouth shut, talked big afterward. He said the Bears were crybabies. He said the Bears were quitters when the going got tough. He said the Bears weren’t a second half team. He forgot that newspaper reporters were in the room. So when Chicago coach George Halas caught what Marshall said, he used quotes from the paper to fire them up. And holy shit, did it WORK. In an era where games commonly ended with scores like 10-6, 6-0, and 7-3, the 1940 Championship featured a grand total of 73 points being scored, and every last one of them went to the Bears. The Bears scored their first touchdown on their second play, were up 28-0 by halftime, and made Marshall eat his words about the Bears not being a second half team by adding another 45 points during the last two quarters. By the time the game was over, the Bears had rolled up 501 yards on offense, 382 rushing yards, and reeled in eight interceptions, three of which were returned to be added to the total of 11 touchdowns the Bears put on the board. Since there were no nets to catch kicked balls back then, there were so many balls kicked into the stands that the Bears had to run in the final two point-after attempts. The Redskins only got within reach of scoring on their opening drive, but wide receiver Charlie Malone dropped the touchdown pass. Sammy Baugh, however, managed to fire off one of the great quips of football history after the game when a reporter asked if the outcome would have been different had Malone held the pass and scored the tying touchdown: “Absolutely. The final score would have been 73-7.” The score is still the most lopsided in league history.
The Redskins met the Bears in the NFL Championship two more times in that span, in 1942 and 1943, winning the 1942 game. They played in the 1945 NFL Championship against the Cleveland Rams, losing 15-14 in large part because of a weird safety that happened in the first quarter: One of Baugh’s passes hit the goal post and fell to the ground. Under the league rules back then, that was a safety. Marshall was plenty pissed off, and he became a crusader for one of the major rules in today’s NFL: Any pass that hits the goal post is incomplete.
That was the last shining moment of success the Skins saw for some time. In 1946, the team signed a new coach in Turk Edwards, but he only coached until 1948 and ended up leaving with an overall record of 16-18-1. Although Sammy Baugh set a handful of records during 1947 – for pass attempts, pass completions, and passing yards – they were nullified by a 4-8 record. In the 1946 draft, the Redskins picked up Cal Rossi… But he was a junior and therefore ruled ineligible. So the Skins tried to draft him again the next year, only for Rossi to decide he wanted nothing to do with professional football. After Edwards left, the Skins then spent the next few seasons on a coach carousel, hiring three coaches in three years, all of whom sucked.
Marshall, though, seemed to have a different idea of hat defined success in the NFL than most people. Whereas most define success by the numbers on the particular sides of win/loss records, Marshall set about trying to make his team successful by getting the American Oil Company to put every Redskins game on TV in 1950. Two years later, he hired legendary Packers coach Curly Lambeau. Now, Lambeau is the winningest coach in Packers history – yes, he won even more games than Vince Lombardi – and the Packers’ stadium is named after him, but in two years, he couldn’t get the Redskins to so much as a winning record. So Marshall did something to Lambeau after two years which I don’t imagine Lambeau has had done to him very often: He fired Lambeau. Then he hired Joe Kuharich, fresh off a single-year stint with the Chicago Cardinals which resulted in a 4-8 record. Wouldn’t you know it, though, Kuharich managed to take Washington to its first winning record in ten years and win Coach of the Year. Unfortunately, that about did it for Kuharich’s highlights in Washington, and besides, he made the leap to the University of Notre Dame when the opportunity presented itself. Washington’s next coach, Mike Nixon, was the the worst coach the team ever had, and drafting Norm Snead over Fran Tarkenton wasn’t the brightest thing the Redskins did, either. Nthing much really happened for the Redskins until they hired coach Bill McPeak – another sucky coach, but one who was able to make up for his unbridled suckage by having a great eye for draft and trade talent. It was during his years the Redskins dug up Charley Taylor, Jerry Smith, Sonny Jorgensen, and Sam Huff. They helped make the Redskins popular, even as they struggled on the field.
You may be getting the impression by now that George Preston Marshall was quite the moron. But it was more than that – he was an asshole supreme. He was racist as hell, and so by 1961, the Redskins still hadn’t invited any blacks to play for them. This was a special embarrassment because by 1961, EVERY OTHER PROFESSIONAL SPORTS TEAM IN THE NBA, NFL, AND MLB had black players. Marshall was still spewing bullshit about how it was a proud Redskins tradition to not sign black football players. In 1961, the NFL and United States government both finally decided they had had enough of Marshall’s procrastinating. So the team drafted Ernie Davis, then traded him to the Cleveland Browns for another black player, Bobby Mitchell. Mitchell wasn’t exactly welcomed, but he did become an important part of the team, and had a great career which included several Pro Bowl selections. The only solace here is that the Redskins kept struggling, and it was only the hire of another legendary Packers coach – yes, this time it was Vince Lombardi – which gave the Skins a reprieve from the basement. Lombardi went 7-5-2 in his first year in Washington, thus keeping his streak of never having a losing season intact… Then he died of cancer the day before the 1970 season started.
The next coach was George Allen, the former coach of the Los Angeles Rams. He got full control over player personnel, brought in seven of his favorite players from the Rams, and took off by taking the Skins to a surprise 9-4-1 record and their first trip to the playoffs since 1945. The next year was even better: The Skins went 11-3 and ran all the way to the Super Bowl, but they were overmatched in the Big Game by the famed undefeated Miami Dolphins of 1972. The 14-7 score wasn’t nearly as close as it looked. In Allen’s seven years at the helm, the Skins were finally competitive, and they made the playoffs in five of Allen’s seven years. But it was the hiring of Joe Gibbs in 1981 that brought the Skins to outright dominance. Led by Gibbs, receiver Art Monk, and an offensive line known as The Hogs, the Redskins spent the decade on a tear. They went to the Super Bowl in 1982, 1983, 1987, and 1991. They won it in 1982, 1987, and 1991. They played against four different teams: In 1982, they defeated the Dolphins. In 1983, the Redskins were possibly the best team to ever lose the Super Bowl, falling to the Los Angeles Raiders. But it’s the 1987 and 1992 Super Bowls that are noteworthy: In 1987, George Preston Marshall’s racial sins were partially atoned for when Skins quarterback Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to ever win the Super Bowl. The 1991 team is a common thinking fan’s choice for the greatest single-season football team ever.
The Gibbs dynasty was fairly unusual by most dynasty standards: The three Super Bowls his teams won were all with different quarterbacks: The first was with Joe Theismann, who might have gone into the Hall of Fame had his career not been derailed by Lawrence Taylor; Doug Williams, a feel good story for being the first black quarterback, but otherwise a journeyman with a putrid career completion percentage of 49; and Mark Rypien, the first non-American player to be a Super Bowl MVP. (He was Canadian.) The 1991 Super Bowl team’s opponents in the Super Bowl, the Buffalo Bills, went to four straight Super Bowls and believe the Redskins were the best team they played against in any of their appearances. Two of their Super Bowl victories occurred in years when the players went on strike.
Gibbs retired in 1993 after finishing the previous season with a 9-7 record. His replacement, Richie Petitbon, only lasted a year in which the Skins went 4-12. Owner Jack Kent Cooke died a few years later, which was a big deal because his death allowed an owner by the name of Dan Snyder to sweep in and buy the team. With Snyder, the Redskins began resorting to the New York Yankees method of team-building: Buying every name star player he can when they have a few drops of gas left in the tank. To their credit, the Redskins weren’t quite in the depths during the 90’s, but they were never truly good after that 1991 Super Bowl. They managed to electrify fans with players like Terry Allen, Brian Mitchell, Stephen Davis, Brad Johnson, Chris Samuels, and LaVar Arrington. They made one of the last great player-for-player trades when they sent Champ Bailey to the Denver Broncos for Clinton Portis. But they also signed Deion Sanders to a massive seven-year contract after he lost his speed, and he ended up retiring after just one year; they signed Adam Archuleta, who was out of football two years later; he signed Bruce Smith, a defensive lineman who had already been around for about 15 years and had stats in decline; and they signed Jeff George to be a backup and were shocked when he didn’t produce after Brad Johnson went down.
Since Snyder took over the team, the Redskins have been lucky to have years where they were competitive. They’ve made the playoffs a handful of times and even won their division once or twice. They’ve fielded a few players worth watching – their 2012 draft choice, Robert Griffin III, even led the team to 10 wins while taking home the Rookie of the Year award. But their desperation to find their way into the NFL’s ranks of the infallible elite is so thick that they even yanked Joe Gibbs out of retirement in 2006. He retired again after just two more years. Griffin is another case point of the team’s current futility; after a spectacular start to his career, he became riddled with injuries and never seemed to get along with his coach. After losing his starting spot to Kirk Cousins, Griffin was finally waived and signed with the Cleveland Browns.
The Redskins as they currently stand are one of the richest and most popular teams in the NFL. They are also one of the most poorly-run. George Preston Marshall, for all his neanderthal tendencies and racial views, was still an innovator who was never satisfied with the status quo. The team’s second owner, Jack Kent Cooke, is considered one of the greatest sports team owners who ever lived, in spite of being something of a kook. In 2010, Washington City Paper ran down an alphabetical list of offenses by Snyder which included now-famous grievances like charging $10 admission and $10 parking to fans who wanted to attend training camp; selling stale airline peanuts from an airline which had gone under about a year earlier; selling beer in bathrooms; firing the team’s longtime play-by-play announcer for a corporate shill; suing a 73-year-old fan who held season decades for five decades because she couldn’t afford to keep paying the team for the contract on club seats she’d signed; and using Hurricane Katrina to get out of a lease Six Flags had signed with New Orleans.
That name. You knew this was coming. The Redskins are one of two professional sports teams in North America that use an ethnic slur as a nick – and the other team on that list is the Vancouver Canucks, who get away with it because said slur (which lost an election in 1972 to a politician who was heard using it) is seen as an affectionate cover-all term for people from Canada. Although George Preston Marshall hid behind the ever-popular excuse of “tradition” to excuse his racism and was frequently heard saying things like “I’ll start signing blacks when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing white players,” I don’t think he had anything racial in mind when he named the team the Redskins. He wanted an Indian name, Boston had the Braves, Cleveland had a baseball team called the Indians, and Marshall wanted to be different. Unfortunately, the times started a-changin’, and people grew more sensitive to offending others. There are a lot of teams named the Redskins, but those are slowly disappearing, and arguments for other racial names like the Boston Celtics and Minnesota Vikings don’t work because they’re usually based around races which have gotten ahead. Besides, a Celtic or a Viking is more a statement of fact about racial makeup, whereas Redskin was actually used to degrade people. Others try to make cases for the Redskins name using using occupation-based team names like the Dallas Cowboys and New York Rangers, but those are jobs – they’re not based in arbitrary birth features, so anyone can set out to BECOME a cowboy or ranger. The Patent Office cancelled its trademark on the team’s name, though, because it was deemed offensive. The government has sent a letter to Dan Snyder saying the name should be changed. But this seems to be a minority opinion, even among the Indians, and virtually all the polls taken among the general public about the subject come down with the people not having a big problem with it. The polls vary among sources and results, but the lowest support number I’ve seen in favor of the name is still 53 percent. Now, I have a deformity and so I know the frustration of having people use slurs to degrade others. (For me, it was “retard.”) So I do think the Redskins should change their name. But this isn’t anything close to a hot-button issue with me. I tend to take more of a straw man view of it: If it gets changed, great. If not, aren’t there some broken treaties which should be higher on the activist’s to-do list?
Although the Washington Redskins never had a celebrated sports curse surrounding their mythology, they do have an odd superstition based around presidential elections: For 17 of the last 19 presidential elections, if the Redskins won their last home game prior to Election Day, it would mean re-election for whoever was still in office. The two exceptions were in 2004, when George W. Bush won the election after the Skins lost to the Packers, and 2012, when Barack Obama won the election after the Skins lost to the Carolina Panthers. Other than those, the rule has been true since Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1936, when the team was still the Boston Redskins.
The Redskins are more responsible for the way offense is played in the NFL than most people realize or appreciate. Sammy Baugh had mechanics which wouldn’t be tolerated by most high school coaches these days, but he was THE guy who turned passing into the attack it is today. Joe Gibbs is one of football’s great offensive geniuses. As an assistant coach with the San Diego Chargers, prior to taking his job with the Skins, Gibbs assisted the great Don Coryell in creating one of the greatest and most influential passing offenses in football. As The Man in Washington, he built the strongest offensive line he could because he knew the advantage of controlling the line of scrimmage. Although he used a hard trench running game, he is best known for the incredible passing attack which complimented it with receivers like Art Monk, Gary Clark, and Ricky Sanders. He also invented sets with a single back but put two or even three tight ends on the line – something he did strictly to slow down New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor – and created the Trips formation, which stacked one side with three wideouts. He used shifting which created confusion for the defense, and utilized the h-back.
The Redskins have won over 500 games in the collective history, and Gibbs was the coach for an entire quarter of them. He’s one of a lot of greats who have contributed to the Washington Redskins in some way. Sammy Baugh was the most accomplished quarterback in the NFL for a long time, before coaches learned that incorporating a passing game might actually have a few advantages running the ball on every down might not offer. Sonny Jurgenson was another great Redskins quarterback who helped keep fans’ interest in the team during a lot of bad years, and he was still with the team when they went to their first Super Bowl in 1972, although he was hurt and Billy Kilmer was starting that year. Sam Huff, John Riggins, Charley Taylor, and Art Monk are among Washington’s all-time roster, though Baugh is still the only Redskin with a retired number. Ironically, none of Gibbs’s Super Bowl teams featured Hall of Fame quarterbacks, but it speaks a lot of Gibbs’s brilliance as a coach that they didn’t need great quarterbacks because they were set up in a way that any quarterback could be effective in them. Joe Theismann might have been the greatest quarterback the team ever had, but his career was cut short during a memorable Monday Night Football game against the Giants in which his tibia and fibula were broken by Lawrence Taylor. Taylor regretted that he was responsible for ending Theismann’s career. He was the one on the field after that hit calling for help, and he made sure to visit Theismann in the hospital after the game. Doug Williams is notable for being the first black quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl, and he’s one of only two black quarterbacks to have done that. (The other is Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks.) Williams, however, wasn’t a good quarterback. At least not according to his numbers – he might have been a much better player in person than on paper, but I can’t judge that, since I never saw him play. I mean, he DID have a stellar career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before the Skins signed him, taking them to the playoffs three times – an impressive feat for a team that had never been to the playoffs before he came along. Then again, his career statistics include just 16,998 passing yards, a TD/INT ratio of 100/93, a QB rating of 69.4, and a completion percentage of 49.5, which is basically a war atrocity.
The Redskins have one of the more devoted fanbases in the NFL. They are frequently heard and seen to be devoted and knowledgeable, and football becomes the only game in town in Washington during the season. They continue to show up at games wearing pig noses, a reference to The Hogs line that was so popular under Joe Gibbs. Sportswriter Bill Simmons once referred to their old stadium, RFK, as the Madison Square Garden of football because of how loud the fans could get – a Youtube video shows the fans screaming “We want Dallas” – a reference to their rivalry with the Cowboys – while jumping so hard that the stadium shook. A lot of the fans may be carryovers from the years under Gibbs himself, but with Dan Snyder running the team and gouging everyone in sight and generally being a walking PR disaster, no one will accuse them of bandwagoning now if they’re still around. The fans, though, are in a very weird position, and the name is the reason why: There’s a lot of infighting among them about whether or not the team’s name should be changed. If you adopt the Redskins, you’ll surely have to adopt a stance on that and be able to defend it. George Preston Marshall also played a huge role in weirding the fan loyalty: His refusal to sign black players eventually caused a lot of black fans to defect to a team that didn’t have such problems. That team was the Skins’ archival, the Dallas Cowboys, so there are enormous pockets of Cowboys fans in Redskins country now.
The Washington Redskins are a storied team; there’s no question about that. But don’t plan on liking the owner. And be prepared to see a lot of losing before the Redskins finally rise up again. Deadspin likes to run a series before every NFL season about why everyone’s favorite team sucks. The usual author of that series wrote that every year, he has to write the same thing, but the Redskins are one of the few teams that find new and inventive ways of sucking.
Legacy on offense and exciting style of play; five titles, including three Super Bowl victories; beautiful color scheme; awesome fanbase
Racial legacy; front office ineptitude; competitive at extremes – either they’re contenders or jokes
Should you be a fan?
No football fan will blame you, but prepare to hear a lot of jokes about how bad the team currently is. Also prepare for lectures about how racist you are from activists who don’t follow football.