Hail to the…well, Washington, back in the days when its football team’s management made better decisions and its players turned in better results.
Before their decadeslong doldrums and an ongoing controversy over their unseemly name, the Washington Redskins delivered an “unprecedented championship run,” as freelance sportswriter Lazarus (Best of Rivals: Joe Montana, Steve Young, and the Inside Story behind the NFL's Greatest Quarterback Controversy, 2012, etc.) puts it. That run, lasting from 1981 to 1992, was the result of several perfect-storm forces that included a notable roster of players, exemplified by the 1991 team, which lost only 2 of 19 games, and then not by much, with a 16.94-point average scoring differential that no other championship team has matched. Another contributing factor was the presence of legendary coach Joe Gibbs, who accorded his players respect while demanding their best. “The 1991 Washington Redskins,” Lazarus exults, “were Joe Gibbs’s masterpiece: a team with a stellar passing game, a brutal running attack, the best offensive line in history, and a defense that sacked, stripped, or suffocated the opponent every week.” One of Gibbs’ contributions was to break the unsubtle color line that kept African-American players from the captain’s position. As Lazarus observes, up to 1977, only one African-American player had started a postseason game anywhere in the NFL. Another was to de-emphasize the money aspect of the game, and though of course money figures prominently in professional sports, Gibbs spent it uncommonly wisely, not throwing lavish sums at big-name free agents but instead building a roster from the ground up. “I’m a very average person who loves what I do and works hard at it,” Gibbs said with characteristic modesty in a line that might serve as a rebuke to the players, managers, coaches, and owners who have followed.
Lazarus’ solid, unflashy reporting is celebratory without being worshipful, and his study of what made a winning Washington team click will inspire both nostalgia and yearning among fans.