It was Fan Appreciation Night in Ashburn, and you could barely move for fear of being appreciated.
There were white paper Chick-fil-A chef hats, "for autographs!", because nothing screams out classy like a fast food chicken hat bearing Fred Smoot's signature. Next door was the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association booth, where you could get coloring books featuring pleasantly multi-ethnic children eating yogurt, and also mini footballs and pencil sharpeners and pencils attesting to the merits of cheese. One confused fan asked the dairy people for a mini stuffed cow, forgetting that the mini stuffed cows were actually a Chick-fil-A gimmick.
Across the way you could pose for photos with the Lomabardi Trophies, and a few steps more brought the Frito Lay potato chip folks, appreciating fans to the tune of 3,360 bags of original-flavored potato chips. "Take as many as you want!" they were telling us, a phrase that must boil Daniel Snyder's blood. I half expected team officials to show up and demand 30 cents per bag.
But no, fans were free to put their goodies inside their Mobil-sponsored tote bags, or maybe their MasterCard-sponsored plastic bags, and then to soak in the appreciation offered by the Redskins Marching Band, which started with "Hail to the Redskins!" before transitioning into the theme songs for various televised sports programs. The crowd watched silently. A few lucky fans were appreciated via merchandise giveaways, including a Brandon Lloyd jersey, which by rights should have been saved for Depreciation Night.
To kill time while waiting for Joe Gibbs's address, I began asking fans for some predictions. The first chap I addressed, 16-year-old Derek Lett of Manassas, immediately said "16-0." "The Redskins are the greatest," he pointed out. I, in turn, noted that the weather seemed a bit warm for the Redskins santa hat he was wearing. "I know," he agreed. Later, I saw him playing football while wearing the santa hat.
In all, I talked with 24 fans. One dirty, cut-and-run pessimist predicted 8-8. The rest, basking in that hope-springs-eternal optimism that pours out of the glands on 102-degree August evenings, had the Redskins finishing with a winning record. The predictions averaged out to somewhat north of 10-6. Why not?
By now, the band was on "Hail to the Redskins: Take III," and the ever-optimistic fans appeared too overheated to clap along. But moments later Joe Gibbs appeared to a massive ovation, complete with the requisite shouts of "We Love You" and "Thank You." He began by apologizing for the limited autograph opportunities; "I always feel bad about that," he said.
"We can't hear!" fans shouted in return, and indeed, it was tough, especially with all those planes whizzing overhead. But Coach Low Expectations talked a bit about training camp, and about what fans would see during the practice to come, and about what this season had in store.
"The whole schedule this year is gonna be extremely tough, as you guys know," he said.
"Piece of cake," the fans yelled.
Coach Downer talked about the slow start in last year's preseason, and how reversing that was one of the keys to this season, and about the five close games they lost a year ago.
"That's all right, I believe in miracles, 16-0, 16-0, 16-0 this year, 16-0!" shouted out Antionette Mangin from Triangle.
Coach Impossible Road Ahead was asked to name his toughest divisional opponent; "I'm trying to find somebody in there easy," he said. "There's nobody easy."
He rattled off the merits of the divisional opponents, while fans booed. But in these optimistic days of paper Chick-fil-A hats, and of half-mile-long lines of cars waiting to enter the park, and of diehard fans soaked in diehard sweat, no one wanted to hear about how great the Eagles' coaching staff is or how hard it is to play in the Meadowlands, so I went back to Mangin.
"I believe in miracles," she told me. "I believe in miracles. This is the baddest team in the league."
She meant bad as in good.
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