Rebuilding. It seems to be a term linked to almost every Washington sports team right now. The Nationals, the Caps, the Wizards … well, they’re not really rebuilding, but they’re not exactly encouraging either. For starters, right now even the Washington Generals could make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, and yet the Wizards find themselves as only the seventh-best team there. Part of the reason is their lack of an inside game. That bit is discouraging since no team without an All-Star big man has won the title since the 1998 Bulls. Hmm. Maybe the 11 sub-.500 teams in the East are actually winning the race to get Ohio State phenom Greg Oden?
Then there’s the Redskins. This was supposed to be the season they made a run at the Super Bowl. Deposed starting quarterback Mark Brunell even said before the season that anything less than a Super Bowl appearance would be a disappointment. So how big of a disappointment is it that on Dec. 11 Washington has clinched last place in the NFC East with a record of 4-9?
Yes, folks, there’s a lot of fixing to be done in the nation’s capital. Perhaps Danny Snyder should have thought about partnering with Tim “The Toolman” Taylor instead of Xenu’s top earner. But the question is: When will the pain end? What hope is there on the horizon? Which of these teams (excluding the Wizards) will make the playoffs first?
It is readily apparent that the Nationals will not be printing postseason tickets next year. And realistically, they still won’t be there when the new ballpark opens in 2008. Right now, after John Patterson (who is returning from injury … again) the Nationals starting rotation reads like the pre-spring training invitation scene in Major League. I don’t know half the guys on this list, and the ones I do know are way past their prime. Some of them never had a prime. I’ll put it to you this way, feel-good rookie Mike O’Connor, he of the 4.80 ERA and the 1.31 strikeout/walk ratio, will likely be the club’s No. 2 starter in 2007. The rest of the rotation will come from prospects within the organization and a pool of pitchers signed to minor-league contracts right after the season. As good as Ryan Zimmerman is, there’s no way the Nats lineup is going to throw up the run support necessary to keep them in the playoff hunt. Cross your fingers for 2009 when some of the seeds sown into the farm system start to ripen.
The Capitals are surprising many around the NHL this season. Olie Kolzig is in Vezina Trophy form, Alexander Ovechkin is up to his not-so-old tricks, Alexander Semin has cooled from his torrid start, but has lit the lamp 12 times. Free agent acquisition Brian Pothier is performing very well, with 15 assists and a plus-2 rating. Eight of his assists have come on a power play he has helped drag up from 26th in the league last year to 18th this year.
As the Eastern Conference standings fall right now, the Caps find themselves tied with three other teams for the No. 7 spot. There is no denying the Caps are way ahead of owner Ted Leonsis’ rebuilding curve, but for all of their grit, hard work and Ovechkin-led magic, it feels like the Caps are going to be one year off from a playoff appearance.
The biggest reason for my doubting stems from the defense. Exhibit A — the blown four-goal lead against the Penguins on Monday. Kolzig has been sensational this season, but the season is long and “Kolzilla” is not as young as he used to be. Can he really continue to face 35 shots a game — his current average — all year and be this effective? The defense needs to help him out, and to be fair, they’re still young. Give them a year, add top draft pick Nicklas Backstrom (who has been dominating Sweden’s top league at the tender age of 18) and then cross your fingers that Olie is ready for one more go-round.
At first glance, there is no hope for the Redskins. They bungled their defensive signings last summer, the defense is last in the NFL in both sacks and take-aways and they traded away valuable draft picks for a backup running back that has been as useful as the screen-door submarine the ‘Skins have ridden to the bottom of the division.
There is no getting around the fact that the season has been a nightmare and reasons for hope appear few, but Washington has more going for it than it seems.
The ‘Skins are already set at the skill positions for next season with Jason Campbell, Clinton Portis, Ladell Betts, Santana Moss, Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle-El. That means they can spend their picks … well Nos. 1, 5, 6 and 7, the ones they haven’t traded … on their defense where they need the help. Add a top of the crop linebacker or defensive end and see how much that can help. Look at the impact Julius Peppers had for Carolina. Last year’s top linebacker in the draft, A.J. Hawk, leads the Green Bay Packers in tackles.
Washington doesn’t need as much tweaking as most fans think or want to believe in order to boost their hyperbolic misery. The NFL sports more parity than any other professional league. Anything can happen. Look at the Saints. Last year they had three wins. This year they replaced an underperforming quarterback, got lucky with a late round draft pick and had a dynamic tandem of running backs that stayed fresh and healthy all year long. If Joe Gibbs or another GM can target the right players, there’s no reason not to think the Redskins can’t turn it around in a hurry.
So which team will get to the playoffs next season? Well, beam me up, Xenu. I’m picking the Redskins.