For Nats’ fans, great expectations, apprehension as playoffs approach

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In most years since the Nationals arrived in Washington, fans haven’t expected much and they’ve gotten just what they expected – last-place finish after last-place finish, if not next-to-last.

However, the exact opposite was true the previous two seasons. Fans anticipated great things and they were rewarded with great disappointment, from what appeared to be a slot in the 2012 National League Championship Series, to what presumably was a surefire berth in the 2013 playoffs.

This season has brought great expectations along with doses of apprehension. After watching the team come within one pitch of advancing to the NLCS, and then miss the playoffs despite being a popular pick to reach the World Series the following year, a little anxiety amongst the base is understandable.

We’ve barely grown accustomed to having baseball back in the nation’s capital, as the Nats are celebrating the 10th anniversary of their relocation from Montreal.

It’s going to take a while longer to get used to the sport’s fickle treatment of winners and would-be winners.

The Nats returned from their last regular-season road trip with their second NL East title in three years and the league’s best record. They’re poised to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which doesn’t mean as much in baseball but certainly doesn’t hurt. They’ll look to seal the deal during this homestand and then get set for the postseason.

Two trips in three years is no small feat for most teams, so these rides are to be savored no matter the final outcome. At this point, the Nats are trying to emulate two thorns-in-the-side, St. Louis and Atlanta.

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All-consuming NFL can’t get out of its own way

GoodellShadowBy DERON SNYDER

The Washington Nationals clinched the NL East title Tuesday night in Atlanta, while the Baltimore Orioles claimed the AL East crown Tuesday night at Camden Yards. The odds aren’t great, but a BW Parkway Series is officially in play.

That’s great news for our section of the sports universe, where the NFL team is sorting through quarterbacks and the NBA team is gearing for a promising season and the NHL team is set to host the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day.

But all of those stories pale in comparison to the coast-to-coast outrage aimed at the National Football League and commissioner Roger Goodell.

Our inability to look away from football is nothing new. The league’s ironclad grip on our attention covers Sunday afternoon and night, Monday and Thursday nights, fantasy teams, office pools, suicide picks and point spreads. It barely eases up in the offseason, plying us with combines, mini-camps, free-agent signings and wall-to-wall draft coverage.

But the last few months have been different. We might have thought the NFL was maxed out, but it has attracted a slew of new eyeballs as women, non-fans, politicians, news producers and corporate executives turn toward the league.

What they see isn’t pretty.

Carolina’s Greg Hardy is convicted of assault for allegedly choking a girlfriend, throwing her around, dragging her by the hair and threatening to kill her. Baltimore’s Ray Rice drags his unconscious fiancée off an elevator, reaches a plea deal to avoid trail and is seen cold-cocking her on video.

San Francisco’s Ray McDonald is arrested on suspicion of felony domestic abuse against his pregnant fiancée, who according to police had visible injuries. Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson is indicted on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child after whipping his 4-year-old son with a switch.

The NFL thought its biggest threat was the concussion issue, and the league attempted to squash it with a class-action settlement of at least $675 million. The fear was parents would steer their kids toward other sports and football would slowly lose cultural relevance, much like horse racing and boxing before it.

That peril hasn’t disappeared. Data released last week suggests that nearly 30 percent of former NFL players will end up developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia across their lifetime, putting them at a significantly higher risk than the general population.

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Face of franchise looms over Gruden’s shoulder


The news on Monday was great for Robert Griffin III: His left ankle is dislocated, not fractured, and it will not require surgery. He could be ready to go again at some point this season.

The news on Monday was mixed for coach Jay Gruden: He could face a delicate decision if RG3 heals quickly and expects to play, regardless of Kirk Cousins’ performance in his stead.

Not that Gruden has anything but best wishes for Griffin, but life would be a lot easier if RG3 was ruled out for the season.

Aside from announcing that Griffin’s ankle will be put in a cast and evaluated further in a couple of weeks, Gruden offered no timetable on the quarterback’s return. The first, inevitable “what if” was raised shortly thereafter.

Suppose Cousins is fantastic and the team is rolling. Will Griffin automatically get his job back once he’s cleared to play?

“We’ll cross that bridge when that comes,” Gruden said during a news conference at team headquarters. “Right now we’re going to prepare with Kirk Cousins as the starter and Robert is going to rehab. All decisions after that will come after that.”

It’s too early to make the decision now, but Gruden had to choose one of three options for responding to the question.

He could’ve offered the only answer that would help RG3 sleep better: “As soon as he’s ready, Robert is the man again, period.” That’s what a face-of-the-franchise expects to hear, but there are no guarantees when coming off a 3-13 campaign followed by lackluster performances in exhibitions and the season opener.

Or, Gruden could’ve offered the reply that’s probably rolling around in his head, the answer he would give after an injection of truth serum: “Are you kidding? If Cousins plays lights-out football and we’re battling for the playoffs, I’d be crazy to make a change.”

Instead of going with either extreme, Gruden laid up with a ‘we’ll see.’ That safe, middle-of-the-road approach must feel like a gut shot to RG3.

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Kirk Cousins fans asked and now they shall receive


For their own sake, NFL players must tune out incessant chatter to the best of their ability.

The non-stop chirping from fans, columnists, radio show hosts and TV analysts could become a full-time obsession if players aren’t careful. But turning deaf ears doesn’t stop the noise, and there was plenty surrounding Washington’s NFL team during the preseason.

Especially regarding the quarterback position.

In case you missed it, there were rumblings that the backup might be better than the starter. Former great Joe Theismann and ESPN’s Herm Edwards intimated as much. So did unnamed sources on the New England Patriots and assorted media types around the country. A segment of Washington fans wondered the same thing, except they’re not as vocal about it.

But these things usually have a way of working out. So everybody who wanted Kirk Cousins now gets Kirk Cousins, at least for the foreseeable future.

Washington’s backup-turned-starter didn’t disappoint his fans Sunday when he replaced Robert Griffin III on the team’s ninth play from scrimmage. Cousins’ first pass attempt went for a touchdown and Washington never looked back in a 41-10 rout against Jacksonville at FedEx Field.

Early reports on RG3’s left ankle suggest it might be a while before we see him under center again. Just like that, Cousins has a long-term starting assignment, though no one wanted it to happen this way.

But if every defense plays as well as Jacksonville, the Hall of Fame is in Cousins’ future and RG3 will have to resurrect his career elsewhere.

Cousins wants no part of such talk.

“This is Robert’s team,” he said after completing 22 of 32 passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns. “My job is to be the backup quarterback. If called upon to come in and play, I better play and help this team win. That job doesn’t change.”

The job hasn’t changed but the terms are totally different.

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Howard, Morehouse to meet in a Classic that’s worth perserving

howard-rutgers-footba_lanc_s877x504By DERON SNYDER

College football is full of traditions and they’re great … as long as you’re on the right side of them.

South Carolina State trailed Clemson, 73-0, last week before rallying for a 73-7 defeat. But the Bulldogs fared better than some fellow Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference brethren recently. Last season, the Florida A&M Rattlers were smoked by Ohio State, 76-0. In 2012, Savannah State opened the season with visits to Oklahoma State and Florida State, who combined to score 139 points while yielding none.

The practice of pitting black colleges against powerhouses has its benefits, though, namely in the large checks that are cashed. Howard University, in the midst of three-game series with Rutgers, is receiving a total of $1 million total for its trouble. The Bison put up a respectable effort last week in falling to the Scarlet Knights, 38-25, after suffering a 26-0 defeat in 2012.

A more-pleasant tradition resumes Saturday at RFK Stadium, when Howard faces Morehouse College for the fourth consecutive year in the AT&T Nation’s Football Classic. The rivalry between the schools, two of the nation’s preeminent Historically Black Colleges & Universities, dates to 1923, with Howard leading the all-time series, 24-10-2.

For Howard coach Gary “Flea” Harrell, it’s his first game in D.C. since the 2012 season finale, a 41-34 victory against Delaware State at Greene Stadium. He took a leave of absence last year for undisclosed personal reasons and he’s anxious to resume his rebuilding project.

Before Harrell led his alma mater to a 7-4 mark in 2012, his second season on the job, Howard’s last winning record was in 2004.

“We started three years ago on the ‘Road to Redemption,’” Harrell said during the MEAC’s media day. “Now I want to get on the ‘Road to Glory.’”

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Ugliness is in eye of the beholder

redskins-texans-footb_lanc10_s877x585By DERON SNYDER

If you predicted a 6-10 record for Washington’s inaugural season under coach Jay Gruden, you witnessed enough evidence Sunday afternoon to feel secure in that prognostication.

If you foresaw a 10-6 campaign as Robert Griffin III rebounds from a forgettable sophomore experience, you can point to encouraging signs that bolster the forecast,

That’s the beauty of Week 1. You usually can see whatever you choose – good or bad – to reinforce your thoughts entering the season. Ammunition exists for pessimists and optimists alike.

The two-way vision doesn’t work in every case. Dallas fans can try to turn Tony Romo’s three interceptions into a lemonade stand, but most aren’t buying. Those lemons have been too sour for too long to hope for a sweet outcome.

Teams that were victorious can check off a list of negatives, too, which their coaches gladly share each week. Philadelphia got the win against Jacksonville, but surely coach Chip Kelly’s script didn’t include a 17-0 halftime deficit.

Likewise, coach Mike Tomlin will temper Pittsburgh’s victory by alluding to the 24 consecutive points Cleveland scored to tie the game before Ben Roethlisberger directed a last-gasp drive for the winning field goal.

Highlighting the things that went wrong when you’re 1-0 is a luxury. Looking to accentuate the positive when you’re 0-1 is a necessity. Jacksonville and Washington will enter Sunday’s game at FedEx Field with a half-full approach; but one will depart with a completely empty win column.

Even the fans who predicted 6-10 for the home team counted the Jaguars as a win, so let’s start with their rosy viewpoint.

Here’s the most promising indicator that Sunday will be different: J.J. Watt will be in Oakland instead of Washington’s backfield.

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Time to move on from penalties flags and Johnny Football


There were way too many instances of a couple of things during the NFL preseason: penalty flags and Johnny Manziel mentions.

Here’s hoping for a sharp decline in at least one of them.

It’s not that I crave additional coverage of Cleveland’s much-ballyhooed backup QB. There’s already been more than enough for no good reason. Johnny Football has morphed into Johnny Ad Nauseam.

But that’s not as sickening as the ticky-tacky penalties officials called on seemingly every pass attempt. With the league’s new emphasis on defensive-contact rules, exhibition games turned into an ugly form of flag football.

Blame it on the “Legion of Boom” Seattle laid on NFL cover boy Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl. Blame it on the league acquiescing to the stranglehold of fantasy football. Blame it on TV executives’ belief that offense sizzles and defense fizzles.

Whatever the reason, covering receivers under preseason conditions was harder than swatting flies without using your hands.

Through the first two weeks there were 56 illegal contact penalties; through the entire 2013 regular season there were 54.

“We expected (the increase),” NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said on NFL Network. “I think there’s an adjustment period for our officials, for the coaches and our players. When the regular season rolls around, I think everybody will be on the same page and I think you’ll see those foul totals go down.”

They better, because the league is walking a thin line between thrill and overkill. As much as fans like touchdowns and electrifying plays, they don’t want the NFL to resemble Arena football played outdoors.

The Cleveland Gladiators scored 32 points in ArenaBowl XXVII last month. The Arizona Rattlers scored 72.

It’s one thing to crack down on the vicious hits that lead to broken necks and scrambled brains. Old-timers can complain about modern players wearing ballerina dresses all they want, but the sport has evolved to err on the side of safety (except when it comes to more Thursday night contests and the push for 18 regular-season games).

Defensive backs already have a near-impossible task at times, trying to hit receivers below the helmet as the receivers duck their heads … all of which happens in fractions of seconds while both players are moving fast. But at least the goal is honorable, an attempt to protect the athletes from themselves and each other.

That’s not the case with this new focus on the jostling, bumping and hand-fighting that’s typical during the course of pass routes. And wideouts are just as “guilty” as DBs. But the league seems hellbent on making the latter group totally passive in pass coverage, to the point where no yards after catch becomes the new standard for good defense.

It’s not like we were slogging through a bunch of 17-10 contests and the rules needed a tweak. Of the top 11 single-season passing marks, all but two occurred between 2011 and 2013. There were 46.8 points scored in the average NFL game last season, an all-time high.

When is enough enough?

Speaking of knowing when to say when, that brings us back to Johnny.

Manziel has been the eye of a Tebowsian media storm ever since the draft. See Johnny run (off to Las Vegas to unwind). See Johnny laugh (with hangers-on in countless selfies). See Johnny score (time with the pretty ladies around him).

We just haven’t seen Johnny play (well enough to justify the hype).

I really don’t care what he does off the field as long as no laws are broken. He can tweet 100 pictures daily as far as I’m concerned. If he wants to be the second coming of Joe Namath, hanging out in nightclubs and embracing the playboy lifestyle, so be it.

Whether that image can work for today’s quarterbacks, who are more like CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, is subject for debate. Personally, I don’t think a little more personality at the position would hurt. But it’s all moot if Manziel gets on the field and demonstrates the transcendent playmaking ability that was so dazzling at Texas A&M.

Hearing more won’t bother me if it’s accompanied by seeing more.

Can he be the freewheeling, improvisational gunslinger who reminds us of a young Bret Favre? Can he further the cause of read-option QBs such as Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and RG3? Can he supplant Cleveland’s journeyman starter Brian Hoyer before season’s end?

Let’s hope so. Because that would be fun

Certainly more fun than a flurry of yellow flags and defenseless DBs.

All eyes on RG3: Football nation transfixed by DC’s QB drama


For the most part, there is no quarterback controversy inside the Beltway. Robert Griffin III is Washington’s starter, face of the franchise, championship cornerstone and future Ring of Famer.

But that’s not the case outside the DMV.

Everywhere else in the continental 48 – the Rust Belt, Bible Belt, Great Plains, Northeast Corridor and Wild Wild West – RG3 is simply a leading character in the national entertainment show known as NFL football. Whether he fails or succeeds is irrelevant at the moment.

Viewers are thoroughly engrossed because he remains an interesting story line. And nothing spices up a drama like a little contention – imagined or not.

Nine other quarterbacks were selected in the 2012 draft after Andrew Luck and RG3 went one-two at the top. One even landed in the same locker room with Griffin, an unusual and intriguing twist that drew extra attention from the start.

First-rounders Ryan Tannehill (middling) and Brandon Weeden (a bust) landed starting jobs immediately with Miami and Cleveland, respectively. But other QBs faded into the background as quickly as their names were called.

Second-rounder Brock Osweiler remains gainfully employed in Denver as Peyton Manning’s seldom-used backup. Sixth-rounder Ryan Lindley recently was cut by Arizona, his original team, and signed to San Diego’s practice squad. Seventh-rounders Chandler Harnish and B.J. Coleman are out of the league, having never seen regular-season action.


But two other quarterbacks in that draft have expanded beyond their third-round status and individual markets to become national characters in their own right. They have joined Griffin on the stage he set when he followed up his Heisman Trophy with the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

One, Russell Wilson, won the Super Bowl last season and leads Seattle as it kicks off the NFL season Thursday night against Green Bay. The other, Nick Foles, threw 27 touchdowns and two interceptions last year while leading Philadelphia to the NFC East title, a feat they’re widely expected to repeat.

Can RG3 keep up? Can he recapture the magic? Can he retain his job? Tune in next season!

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McDonald’s stupidity gives Goodell convenient outlet for outrage


The NFL doesn’t kick off until Thursday but the season’s first result is in.

“Congratulations Ray McDonald! You just won the league’s “Bad Timing” Award!

Maybe the 49ers defensive tackle never heard the hubbub surrounding Ray Rice this summer. Maybe McDonald was unaware of San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh’s thoughts on domestic violence.

McDonald certainly must’ve missed last week’s news on NFL discipline for that offense.

Other than sheer stupidity, there are no other explanations for McDonald’s arrest on suspicion of felony domestic abuse early Sunday morning.

According to The Sacramento Bee and other media reports, McDonald was involved in an altercation with his fiancée at his birthday party. She showed police minor bruises on her neck and arms and he was arrested without incident, charged with “inflicting injury on a spouse or cohabitant.”

What was he thinking?

Just two days earlier, commissioner Roger Goodell issued a mea culpa for the league’s handling of Rice, who in late July received a measly two-game suspension for a domestic violence incident. “I didn’t get it right,” Goodell wrote in a letter to the owners. “Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.

“… My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values.”

The letter included information on “enhanced discipline,” effective immediately. Little did we know Goodell would have a chance to back up his words so soon.

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Another football season, another unnecessary heatstroke death

MarqueseMeadowBy DERON SNYDER

We took Princess No. 1 to college a couple of Saturdays ago and looked forward to returning for some football games, as she successfully auditioned to be a dancer in the marching band.

Like most parents, we’re simultaneously excited and worried about our 18-year-old freshman being off on her own. Some of the folks she meets on campus will become like siblings to her and more offspring for us. Which means our emotions will be spread and invested in new vessels.

Well, there was a death in the family this week.

None of us knew the young man but it hurts just the same.

Morgan State defensive tackle Marquese Meadow was an 18-year-old freshman who graduated from Friendship Collegiate Academy in northeast D.C. He had cracked the Bears’ two-deep roster and was expected to make the travel team. But he became disoriented after an Aug. 10 practice and died Sunday.

“This is a very difficult time for our football family,” coach Lee Hull said Tuesday on the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s weekly teleconference. “We are very heartbroken by the death of Marquese Meadow. We offer our deepest condolences to Marquese’s family in the wake of this tragedy.

“Marquese was a great young man and a member of this family and was highly respected and loved by his teammates and the coaching staff. He was an unselfish kid and had an incredible gift and a bright future, and he will be deeply missed.”

I can’t shake the feeling that Meadow’s tragic death was totally unnecessary.

He didn’t die from brain trauma like Will McKamey, the 19-year-old Navy freshman who passed away after practice in March. He didn’t die from a genetic heart condition like Jake West, the 17-year-old LaPorte (Ind.) High junior who passed away after practice in September. He didn’t die from asthma, a broken neck, an abdominal injury or a sudden blow to the chest, all of which have claimed the lives of young football players in recent years.

According to the state medical examiner’s office, Meadow died from heatstroke.

That’s the easiest cause of death to defend against, yet it continues to be problematic.

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