Ups and downs for District’s teams
The endings were familiar, with the docile tones and search for reasoning. Three of the four major pro sports teams in the District had their seasons crash to a close in the playoffs in 2016. The Washington Wizards did not even make it to the postseason, prompting them to fire their coach, Randy Wittman.
Thanks to those results, 2016 flipped through the calendar in same-as-it-ever-was mode. The Chicago Cubs winning the World Series and Cleveland Cavaliers winning the NBA title undid generations-long droughts in the Midwest. They also helped push Washington sports further into a non-title town position. The Washington Redskins last won the Super Bowl more than 25 years ago. The Wizards won the championship 38 years ago. The Washington Capitals have not won a title since first dropping the puck in 1974. No iteration of the Montreal Expos or Washington Nationals has been to a World Series, a run that began in 1969. Baseball fans in the District can point to 1924 with pride, though. That’s the year the Washington Senators won the World Series thanks to Walter Johnson and manager Bucky Harris.
However, the year was not all sports doom. The Capitals led the NHL in points in the regular season. The Nationals won the National League East Division for the third time in five years, finishing with 95 wins, which tied for the second-most in baseball. The Redskins won their division for the first time since 2012, winning nine games, which was more than the two previous seasons combined. To undermine the progress, the Wizards went in reverse.
Determining in the short-term where the Redskins are will have a lot to do with Sunday, when they will face a New York Giants team that is already locked into its playoff spot and will likely rest several starting players during the game. But, barring major injury or a defensive collapse that could lead to a coaching change, what happens Sunday isn’t likely to have much influence on the trajectory of the franchise.
Under Jay Gruden, the
Redskins have begun to find their footing. The offense is third in total yards in the league. What happens to quarterback Kirk Cousins in the offseason when he is a free agent is the team’s biggest question. He has a chance to become the first quarterback in Redskins history to throw for 5,000 yards. He already has the top two passing seasons in Washington history, using this season to break the record he set in 2015. The past two seasons have helped turn the Redskins after their world began spinning in reverse following the 2012 playoff loss against the Seattle Seahawks. Leaks, rumors and reports have become more muffled, a reduction not surprisingly paired with increased winning.
The defense remains a problem, particularly at safety. If rookie Su’a Cravens can be moved long term to the spot and the Redskins can find more help there through the draft and free agents, they may be able to come up with a quick fix. The defensive line and linebackers also need to be addressed.
There’s also this bubbling discussion about the future location of a stadium. The lease at FedEx Field expires in 2027, but that has not stopped Redskins owner Daniel Snyder from dropping hints about a pending departure and various state politicians from already revving up their pitches for a prospective new stadium.
One thing notably absent from much of the discourse this season: The debate around the team’s nickname.
Overall Redskins status: On the right path.
No team was better during the regular season last year and the Capitals have been steady if not as spectacular in the first part of the 2016-17 season.
The Capitals’ 120 points were the second-most in franchise history, trailing the 2010 season when Washington finished with 121 points. A surplus of points did nothing to assuage angst about the playoff, then the playoff results only confirmed the prior nerves.
Washington lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Before the series, players on the Penguins and Capitals felt that to come out of the Eastern Conference and have a shot at the Stanley Cup, they would have to face each other. The series lasted six games. The Capitals scored 15 goals. The Penguins scored 16. Three of the games went to overtime.
The Capitals are nearing a transition. Young players like Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky are expected to take over when 31-year-old Alex Ovechkin begins to slow. T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams and Karl Alzner become free agents after this season, and it’s unlikely they’ll be able to retain all, if even two. Though, goaltender Braden Holtby is just 27 years old. Defenseman Dmitry Orlov is 25.
When the current season is complete, Ovechkin will have four years remaining on his massive 13-year contract.
Overall Capitals status: Nervous in the playoffs.
Just 11 seasons into their District existence, the perception of the Nationals has flipped. Atrocious early after baseball returned to Washington in 2005, the Nationals now work with annual expectations of winning the division. Their five-year track record shows that is a fair weight. Their work in the playoffs has jolted those who root for the Capitals and and Nationals to feel deja vu.
Though the Nationals did not bring in any of the renowned free agents they chased this offseason, much of what led to their 2016 success is intact. Max Scherzer won his second Cy Young Award. Despite down years from Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman, Washington still easily won the NL East.
Most of the vital pieces are back next season. Should good health be maintained through the spring, the only opening day changes will be through the middle of the field. Trea Turner, who was a finalist for Rookie of the Year, will move to shortstop. Adam Eaton will be in center field. Behind the plate will be Washington’s biggest question. Derek Norris replaces Wilson Ramos, who was an all-star last season.
Overall Nationals status: Nervous in the playoffs.
The Wizards had a “slip-up,” as Wittman termed it at the end of the season. They finished 41-41, which put them three games out of the playoffs and diffused any chance at making the postseason for the third consecutive season. Then, the organization followed through with its ill-advised run at free agent Kevin Durant, and lost out on Al Horford.
But, hiring Scott Brooks to replace Wittman appears to be a strong move. The Wizards have won seven consecutive home games and crept toward a .500 record following a putrid start of the season filled with injuries and ineffectiveness. Their starting five is among the best in the conference. The perpetual question for them this season will be about what their bench can provide.
Their long-term path is more difficult to predict. Washington resides in “NBA purgatory” as a team good enough to get to the playoffs, but without the power to move to the league Finals, let alone win the title. Until LeBron James leaves Cleveland, that will be the plight of most teams in the Eastern Conference.
Overall Wizards status: Treading water.
Pitcher Max Scherzer won the Cy Award for the Nationals, who lost to the Dodgers in the National League Divisional Series.
Andre Burakovsky and the Capitals were eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals by the Penguins.