Another sports season has ended in the Nation's Capital, and another chorus of "D.C. Sports Curse" is being sung in these parts. The Nationals lost because some crazy stuff happened in a nightmarish 4th inning, eventually losing Game 5 of the NLDS to the Chicago Cubs 9-8. As what ended up being one of the most statistically improbable innings played out, D.C. sports fans, media, and other talking heads brought up and repeatedly invoked the concept of a D.C.-wide sports curse. All of the teams are cursed to lose in some horribly, gut-wrenching style and never make it to a championship, much less a league championship appearance.
Statistically speaking, the last 69 appearances (dating back to the Washington Capitals 1998 Stanley Cup appearance) D.C. sports teams are 0-69 in their attempts to move on to the league championship level of the playoffs. Here's the problem that I have with this curse talk: it doesn't matter. I would like to bring up a few reasons why there isn't a curse on any of these teams. I'll break down by each sport. We'll start with the "cause" of the curse, everyone's favorite racially insensitive named football squad.
- Washington football
The year is 1992. Super Bowl XXVI is in the books and Washington is victorious over Buffalo. This Washington team is arguably one of the greatest of all time.
They consistently are voted by their peers and sports writers as the best Super Bowl winner of all time. It's not commonly known, but during this Super Bowl, there was a protest by local Native American tribes. The game was played in the old Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Minnesota has one of the largest native populations in the country and they took this opportunity to show their displeasure with the nickname of Washington's football team. This protest also, supposedly came with a curse towards the Washington football squad.
Why curse them? Well, if you live your life in Oblivious City in the county of Everything-Is-Too-Politically-Correct which is in the great state of North Casual Racism, then you've never heard that a lot of people think the term "Redskins" is defamatory, racially insensitive and/or down right disrespectful. Now you also know that this is not something that's just popped up in the last few years "cuz of Obama," as many like to purport, it's been a thing for decades.
Washington's history with casual racism has been an issue since their 1st owner, Grand Wizard George Preston Marshall refused to integrate his team with African American players. In fact, have you ever wondered why there are so many Cowboys fans that live in the D.C. metro area, specifically African Americans? Well... there's your answer, fishbulb. Needless to say, you won't be seeing this writer use the nickname on this website. I'm not a big fan of racial slurs, even if I'm a fan of this stupid team...
But let me refocus: Those same Native American tribes who showed up to protest were reported to have cursed this team until they changed their name. Since that '92 Super Bowl, no D.C. sports franchise has claimed a title.
Now if this curse is in fact a thing (it's not), and it's not from the Native tribes, than perhaps it's from beyond the grave. Before Daniel Snyder took over the team, beloved (and possibly insane) owner Jack Kent Cooke was quoted as saying this:
"I want to be buried in a burgundy-and-gold coffin. And when I'm gone, someone named Cooke is going to run the team. And when he's gone, someone else named Cooke is going to run the team."
Ooooh, creepy! Perhaps Danny Boy should have thought about this before the purchase. Or maybe he shouldn't have changed the name of the stadium from Jack Kent Cookie Stadium to FedEx Field. Either way, if there WAS a curse, perhaps it is a super curse for both of these reasons.
But before we get all X-Files about this, let's look at some of the facts. Why have the "Skins" sucked so bad since that Super Bowl? Four words: Free agency & Salary Cap. The whole NFL landscape changed in 1992 when it was found that the plan B free agency model the league had been using was in violation of antitrust laws (plan B was essentially like the franchise tag of today). This sounds insignificant but part of the reason Washington was always good and competitive in the 80's and early 90's was their depth. Washington would keep veteran players as back ups and not have to pay them a ton. They were one of the richest teams and could eat the costs to keep themselves competitive. What was one of their keys to success was taken from them and they essentially had to re-learn how to manage a football team.
God it hurts my soul to say this, but the Dallas Cowboys were prepared for the new NFL. This is why they traded All Pro Hershel Walker to Minnesota for a cache of draft picks. They knew that in order to succeed with the new salary cap rules, they would have to go young. Plus, that new, shiny Cowboys coach? Former college football guru Jimmy Johnson; a coach with a track record of getting success from young players. They built a team off of young talent and supplemented this with free agency. Instead of depending on big splashes in free agency, they used it for players like Deion Sanders or Charles Haley who ended up being the difference maker for them in those Super Bowl runs. Jerry Jones is still coasting off this success now, 20 plus years later.
The other X-factor in Washington's continued ineptitude: current owner Dan Snyder. When he first bought the team in 1999, he immediately flexed his ownership muscles. He showed favoritism to certain players, he brought on over-the-hill, expensive free agents, and he was impatient with management and coaches. He continues to milk the fan base for every dollar they have without doing much to improve the on-field product. In recent years, it has improved but one has to wonder can that be attributed to former G.M. Scot McCloughan...who was run out of town early in 2017 under suspect reasons and accusations of relapsing into alcoholism. Another Snyder hallmark: making everyone else look like the bad guy when they don't do exactly as he wants.
Not convinced? You think there are things that show this football team is cursed? Please, enlighten me. The RGIII knee injury against the Seahawks in the 2012 playoffs? HA! First off, RGIII was his own worst enemy. He ignored his head coach's suggestion to sit.
Griffin used his buddy-buddy relationship with Snyder (again, showing favoritism) to keep himself on the field. For crying out loud, the dude destroyed his knee against Baltimore and sat out the next game against Cleveland. And after his back up, Kirk Cousins led Washington to a victory, GRIFFIN CALLED A PRESS CONFERENCE AFTER THE CLEVELAND GAME! He couldn't be out-shined! His ego is what destroyed his knee... and his career for that matter. A cursed team would be on the precipice of success and somehow, beyond all logic, they manage to lose (see Cleveland Indians being a few outs away from a World Series and losing TWICE). This was ego, poor management and too many "yes men" on the team.
So before you scream the "D.C. curse" for the Skins bad luck, remember that it all could have been controlled. Had they been ahead of the curve, the free agency and salary cap wouldn't have crushed them. If their new owner had surrounded himself with competent football people instead of yes men, they might have an NFC title under their belt. Had he not treated his players like trading cards, Washington might not have one of the worst records in the last 20 years. Did you know that since 1992, only two teams haven't been to the NFC Championship game? The Detroit Lions...and those pesky Washington footballers. Curse? No...they just suck.
- Washington Bullets/Wizards
My knowledge of the Wiz kids is not nearly as vast as the football team, the Capitals, or the Nationals. I've been a fan since I was a kid and I remember those good teams they assembled, but basketball is not my jam (no pun intended). To assume that this team is cursed though is silly when all of their downfalls can be traced to decisions that were made.
Just like the football team, the Wizards franchise has suffered from poor decision making and what many other NBA teams run into; dominant once-in-a-generation players/teams. Their only championship came in 1978, during their "glory days" when players like Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld and Phil Chenier were leading the team. They made the playoffs pretty regularly then but only struck gold that one year.
The team struggled during the 80's and early 90's but finally put together another winner in the 1996 with players like Juwan Howard, Chris Webber, Gheorghe Murhesan and Rod Strickland. This team was their most complete in decades and managed to secure the 8th seed in the playoffs. Just like many other great teams in the 1990's such as the Charlotte Hornets, New York Knicks, Portland Trailblazers, Seattle Supersonics, and Utah Jazz, they were all overshadowed by the dominance of Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls. Jordan, Pippen, Rodman and crew won 3 straight titles to close out the decade before Jordan retired from basketball (again). That core of Wizards was only together for a few years before Webber got traded to Sacramento and they were never the same.
After a decade or so of down years, the Wizards finally returned to the playoffs. Even after all ill-fated promotion of Michael Jordan to President of Basketball Operations from 2001 to 2003 that set the franchise back, the Wizards returned to the playoffs in 2005. These were the Gilbert "Agent Zero" Arenas years. The team was exciting, it had contributions from players such as Larry Hughes, Antawn Jamison, and Caron Butler. Their playoff runs were derailed by LeBron James and the Cavaliers 3 years in a row, with their first year in '05 being bounced by the Shaq-Dwayne Wade led Miami Heat. And then...this happened.
This picture reminds me of how stupid Gilbert Arenas was to ruin his career by not taking his gun charges seriously. Had he been contrite and apologetic for his actions, he may have been able to resurrect his career. Nope. Instead he came out like Isaac from Love Boat.
The current incarnation of the Wizards is on to something. With players like John Wall, Bradley Beal, Marcin Gortat, Markief Morris, and Otto Porter, Jr. this team seems poised for good things. They lost in the divisional round of last year's playoffs to the Celtics in 7 games. Nothing about that had any sort of possibility of "curse." Just because a young team loses in the playoffs it does not mean they are cursed. They are still missing a piece or two to compete in a league that has become dominated by super teams. If the Wizards were able to make a conference championship series or even the NBA Finals in '17/'18, it would break this current model of "only super teams survive." No curse befell these teams of the past. It was bad decision-making (looking at you GIL) and running into generational talent.
- Washington Nationals
Let's be real for a second: this team can not be cursed. PERIOD. They've only been around for 12 years. They are essentially an expansion team! They were god awful for the first 5 years they were in DC, they got decent for 2 years, and they've been good and very competitive the last 5 years. In spite of all that talent, baseball some times makes no sense what so ever. Look at what happened in this year's divisional series for all teams. Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Chris Sale all came in for relief stints. These Cy Young winning pitchers had a combined ERA of 5.40 while giving up 5 earned runs, 7 total runs, and 2 HRs. It defies logic.
As I mentioned in my article last week , injuries had a big impact on this year's Nats squad. With a 162 game schedule, every team is going to fight injuries, but it was particularly troublesome for the Washington. They lost their prized free ageny acquisition, Adam Eaton to a nasty knee injury. They also lost Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Trey Turner for extended periods of the season. Had these players remained unscathed, the whole series with the Cubs may have gone differently. Turner, the Nats leadoff batter didn't get a hit until the game 4. Had he not been hampered by injury, he may not have had the same issues and game 5 may not have even come up. The same could be said for Harper and Werth as well.
And while we're on the subject of injury, there was something all of us were expecting that didn't happen. Stephen Strasburg, who is normally about as durable as a paper mache go kart, pitched game 4 on short rest while fighting a cold. And he DOMINATED. It was incredible. He set a Nationals record for most strikeouts in a playoff game and won back the hearts of any Nationals fan who had called him soft previously (including yours truly). We all expected him to fold, head to the DL, sit out the rest of the series...something to that effect. But he manned up in a big way. Well done, Stras.
At any rate, the Nationals have a great core of players, many of them still young and under contract for a few more years. This team still has plenty of opportunities and even if Harper leaves in free agency, they have plenty of homegrown talent to replace him. Should they try to keep Bryce? My god, are you insane? Yes! He's a once in a generation type baseball player, but if for SOME reason this team cannot pay his asking price, all is not lost. I still believe if Turner had not been hurt, if they hadn't lost Eaton for the season and that insanely odd inning hadn't occurred in game 5, this team would be in the NLCS. Plus...let's not forget that Dusty Baker mismanaged the bullpen and bench in the last 2 years of playoff series. In my opinion, if the Nationals had a more creative bench boss, they would be playing in the NLCS right now. They'll be back next year, and if they go after a top flight 3rd starter, they will finally move on to the NLCS or even further. THEY ARE NOT CURSED. Seriously, shut up with that nonsense.
- Washington Capitals
Oh Capitals, my Capitals. You are my most beloved D.C. sports team. My hopes for a championship are higher for you than any of the other teams (shhh, don't tell them that you're my favorite). You have had the most heartbreaking losses and collapses in your history. It frankly isn't fair some of the things that have happened to you. But, I am going to take a deep breath and take my emotions out of my assessment our your "curse."
The Capitals are not cursed. There's just no way. I justify this statement with the following: hockey, more so than any of the other sports on this list is the flukiest. A hockey game can completely be changed by an odd bounce. Goals have been scored when bounced off the back of a player. An amazing shot that zips past all of the defensemen and goalie...but it hits the crossbar and bounces harmlessly away. That same shot, a centimeter in scores a goal. The Capitals have some of the worst "puck luck" I've ever seen, especially in the playoffs. Now, I'm not going to play the game of "they would've won if," or "if the refs hadn't screwed us." Even with that horrible luck, a great team would have found a way to win.
Every time the Capitals are convinced that they are "the better team," a facet of the game of hockey bites them in the ass. In the early days of the "Rock the Red" era, the Caps were a high-scoring, high-flying, offensive juggernaut. Their defense and goaltending was suspect. You ask any person familiar with hockey and they will tell you that playoff hockey is all about defense. When there were coaching changes, GM changes and an admission that "business as usual" wasn't good enough, the team overspent on Brooks Orpik. The guy is a freight train but the new NHL is about speed. They learned this last year against the Penguins...and for that matter, in 2016, too. Their continued losses in the playoffs show one thing: a lack of innovative coaching, adaptive gameplay, and having a roster that is constructed by the old-school minds of hockey.
Perhaps this will be the year that the Caps put it together. They had to detonate their high-priced roster of last year. They are relying on the skill and ability of veteran goal scorers like Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie, and Kuznetsov. They have one of the best goalies in Braden Holtby and some experienced defensemen in Orpik, Niskanen, and Carlson. They have brought up many young players from the AHL, too in order to get them some experience (and because they couldn't afford much else). The mix of experience and youth may be exactly what this team needs. Frankly, what other choice do they have? You can't keep banging your head against the wall and expecting it to solve your problems.
When we look at all these teams, is their playoff ineptitude unfortunate? Of course. But it is not a curse. These teams have all been good, just none of them have been great. We as fans like to think that because we root for a team, it means they should win. Life doesn't work like that. We D.C. fans like to attribute a sort of cosmic unfairness to our teams misfortune. When those losses are out of the hands of the players, coaches and management, it's easier to swallow. The truth is all of these teams have had some glaring flaw that their opponents exploited or were not properly managed. We don't want to believe that, they're OUR team! We often use our team's performance as a reflection of ourselves and that's simply just not healthy. We'll eventually break through. #BelieveDC.