This is the time of year when you check the skies each afternoon, in case a nasty front is about to roll in and ruin your cookout or day at the pool.
Figurative storm clouds can undo more than a team’s game schedule as well, and Washington’s high-profile professional squads are struggling to weather misfortune.
Weeks after the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals were unceremoniously bounced in the first round of the NHL playoffs, the Nationals are trying to dig out of a dreadful start. And the Wizards look like an unsalvagible mess.
But the real lightning strike may occur in Ashburn, where all is not well with Jay Gruden’s NFL team.
Already picked to finish near the bottom of the NFC East, Washington was actually in the midst of a decent off-season. Instead of mortgaging its future in the recent draft, it stood pat and emerged with two potential young difference-makers in quarterback Dwayne Haskins and pass-rusher Montez Sweat. If they pan out, they’ll fit gaping needs for a club that has lacked QB consistency for more than a generation.
The ominous sound you hear, though, is Trent Williams’ absence from this week’s mandatory minicamp. CBS Sports reported that Williams, arguably the team’s most important player, wants to be traded or released because he’s upset with the team’s “handling of his recent medical situation,” which Gruden said was the removal of a non-cancerous tumor from his scalp during this off-season.
No one can question Williams’ heart or dedication; he has played through pain that most of us don’t want to experience.
But his absence suggests a couple of things: he knows his career is far nearer the end than the beginning, and he may not expect his team to contend this season.
Therein lies Gruden’s dilemma. Everyone would be best served if Haskins—who started one season at Ohio State—is developed carefully, perhaps serving as Case Keenum’s understudy for most of his rookie season. (See the Bears’ Mitch Trubisky and his rookie struggles for a reference.)
But after making the playoffs just once in five years, Gruden needs to win now to save his job. If his team struggles early, don’t be surprised if Haskins is thrown into the fire, perhaps before he’s ready. (And Lord help him if he doesn’t have Williams protecting his blind side.)
Things aren’t much better for the Nationals, though they’ve now won nine of their past 11 following Trea Turner’s walk-off homer against the Chicago White Sox Wednesday, temporarily quieting the speculation about the job security of their often overmatched manager, Dave Martinez.
It’s worth noting, though, that most of that progress came against undistinguished competition (the Reds, Marlins and White Sox, all sub-.500 opponents), and that only two National League teams (the rebuilding Giants and Marlins) have worse records than Washington’s 27-33 mark entering play Wednesday.
The Nationals’ bullpen is still shaky, despite a recent lift from hard-throwing callups Todd Rainey and Eric Fedde. The Nationals still strike out too much and commit too many errors (44 in their first 60 games) for a team that lacks a consistent power hitter now that Bryce Harper is gone.
Washington’s signature moment of the season came Sunday, when Max Scherzer visibly shouted “No!” when Martinez came to the mound, ostensibly to remove him from the game in the eighth inning against the Reds. Despite a pitch count that eventually reached 120, Scherzer convinced Martinez to leave him in for one more out. Both men knew the risks of summoning a reliever, and the Nationals eventually won to improve Scherzer’s record to an inconceivable 3-5.
Is there time for a rebound? Certainly. There are 100 games left, and the first-place Phillies just lost starting left fielder Andrew McCutchen for the season. But if the Nationals hope to make some noise (and save Martinez’s job, they’ll need to be sharper against quality opponents.
These are all real issues. But if Martinez or Gruden ever feels sorry for himself, he should just look at Wizards coach Scott Brooks. He’s potentially facing a full season without John Wall, and his team can’t seem to find anyone willing to take it general manager opening with the NBA draft barely three weeks away.
Now that’s an ominous forecast.