Gridiron Battle of the Beltways
By Neal Shaffer
Not many rivalries come as naturally as the one between Washington and Baltimore. Situated just 40 miles apart, there are times when the gap might just as well be 440 miles, the respective cultures are just that different (property-hungry DC carpetbaggers notwithstanding).
The rift runs strong and deep and nowhere is this curious condition more evident than in the passion the two locales display for their football teams. The Redskins fan base is notoriously die-hard, and Ravens supporters have come into their own as they enter year 11.
Naturally, then, the Ravens and the Redskins must play each other every year in the regular season at alternating sites, a stirring ritual that gives fans of both sides something to get excited about year after year. Right? Right? Eh…not so much. The NFL has a reason for this. It's just not a good reason.
So, unless they face off in Miami to settle the score, the two teams won't play a game that matters this year. Bragging rights, however, are still in play. So who's got the advantage going in?
When the Ravens acquired veteran superstar Steve McNair, they pulled off one of the most impressive single-position upgrades in recent memory. McNair is a proven winner, something the Ravens have lacked at that position since they unceremoniously dropped Trent Dilfer following the Super Bowl victory. Unfortunately, McNair is also just one Troy Polamalu shot to the chest away from sending the Ravens back into the perilous offensive void that is Kyle Boller.
The Redskins counter with 14-year veteran Mark Brunell, who entered last season as a backup before overtaking Patrick Ramsey and resurrecting his career. Impressive as that was, Brunell will turn 36 in September and there's just no way to tell how much he's got left. With Todd Collins and/or Jason Campbell backing up, fingers in Washington are
most definitely crossed.
If both quarterbacks stay healthy then…never mind. McNair will not stay healthy. Both teams figure to need a lot of luck and good timing.
Both crews look truly strong for the first time in years. With the likes of Marcus Robinson and Travis Taylor now distant memories, the Ravens can count on emerging star Mark Clayton complementing an impressive veteran in Derrick Mason. Top-flight tight end Todd Heap should be a major factor as well, but after that it's anybody's guess. Devard Darling, anyone?
The Redskins have spent mightily to make sure Brunell has the targets he needs. They've got three talented, veteran speedsters in Santana Moss, Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle El. Throw in promising H-back Chris Cooley and the makings are there for one of the league's more prolific pass attacks.
This is a position of strength for both teams, but there's no getting around the fact that the Redskins have four talented receivers while the Ravens only have three.
The Redskins have one of the league's premier backs in Clinton Portis. That's what the Ravens used to have in Jamal Lewis. Despite the addition of veteran Mike Anderson, the Ravens running game is not the dominant force it once was.
While neither team figures to struggle here, barring a major injury, Portis is Portis. You can bet the Ravens would take him in a heartbeat.
The Redskins D turned in an impressive performance last year under head coach-in-waiting Gregg Williams. Finishing ninth in both yards and points per game, the defense figures to be a top-10 squad again this year, and they could sniff the top five.
Defense was the lone strength for the Ravens last year. Rex Ryan's group finished fifth in points and 10th in yards despite the team's overall malaise -- no small feat. The defense filled a pressing need on the line by drafting Oregon DT Haloti Ngata. A drop-off seems unlikely.
This stuff is good as far as it goes, but not every question can be answered with X's and O's alone. What about the intangibles?
The Redskins cheerleaders have a calendar, the Ravens squad doesn't. Game, set, match.
It's hard to imagine two (relatively) new venues less inspiring than FedEx field and M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens dropped the ball in a major way when they erected a disappointingly ordinary facility right across the lot from one of the finest jewels in all of sports, Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
The Redskins, amazingly, went one worse, building a cavernous, impersonal compound in the middle of a field down in Landover. At least the Ravens boast a downtown location, convenient to other attractions and decent public transportation. That counts for a lot.
Right up until the day he pulled his head from his ass and rehired Joe Gibbs, Daniel Snyder was one of the worst owners in all of sports. He had a reverse Midas touch, and Redskins fans suffered for it year after year.
In contrast, the Ravens overcame their dubious beginnings to build one of the strongest organizations in the NFL. While Joe Gibbs has seemingly turned Washington around, it's too soon to be sure that the specter of Snyder has been put to rest for good.
NFL football is the premier visual spectacle in America today. Accordingly, it goes down easier when it actually looks good. The Ravens have a big problem here: the purple is just bad. And those all-black unis? Ummm…no. You get what's coming to you when you take design advice from Ray Lewis.
The Redskins get a lot of flack for their nickname and their logo, but that's a debate for another time. Burgundy and gold is still as classy as it gets, and they've yet to muck things up by trying to go "modern".
All things considered, fans of both teams have plenty of reasons for optimism as they count down to Sept. 10.
The Ravens seem unlikely to repeat their dismal 6-10 campaign of a year ago, but how much better can they get? 9-7 would be a major improvement, and 8-8 remains a strong possibility. In a division as tough as the AFC North that isn't good enough.
The Redskins should be at least a game better than they were last year (10-6), which, even in a tough division, means they have a better-than-average shot at the playoffs.
Ravens partisans won't like it, but look for the bragging rights to stay south this year.
Issue 1.19: august 31, 2006