Commentary

Skins lose Albert Haynesworth excuse

Updated: December 8, 2010, 1:58 PM ET
By Patrick Hruby | Special to ESPN.com

Sixteen total tackles. Two-and-a-half sacks. Four missed games. Three failed conditioning tests.

Oh, and at least one instance of literally lying down on the job.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Haynesworth
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesAlbert Haynesworth was a big target for Redskins critics. Now that he's gone, who'll step into the scapegoat role?

In football terms, suspended Washington Redskins defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth hasn't been a mere bust. He's been a TARP-shaming toxic asset, a multimillion-dollar mistake, a veritable man-mountain -- or is it man-molehill? -- of locker room drama and on-field mediocrity.

In fandom terms, however, he's been worth every penny.

Really.

Let me explain.

The Redskins are lousy. Overwhelmingly so. They're long in the tooth, thanks to oldest roster in the NFL. They're low on talent, with just one top-20 player in passing, rushing and receiving. They're offensively toothless (No. 28 in scoring), defensively challenged (No. 32 in yards allowed) and waist-deep in yet another regime change, laboring under their fifth coach in 10 years. This time things will be different!

In short, Washington is bad. And boring. Despite owner Daniel Snyder's willingness to spend money -- perhaps because of it -- the once-proud franchise of Joe Gibbs and Darrell Green has been all but unwatchable for nearly a decade. And that's enough to make fans morose.

Or even worse, comatose.

Disconnected.

Downright apathetic.

Apathetic fans don't buy jerseys. They don't spring for season tickets. They don't track training camp depth chart Tweets like SETI researchers. Come fall, they find something better to do with their Sunday afternoons. Like taking up woodworking. They definitely don't go all-in on bad football, because bad football is ugly and tedious and hardly worth a financial and emotional investment that trumps following "American Idol" and collecting every single Pearl Jam live album -- ever -- combined.

Unless, of course, those same fans are given a reason to care.

Which usually means someone to blame.

Here's the thing about sports success: It's great fun. Vicariously thrilling. Pretty much the best. It's also rare and fleeting. Athletes get old. Teams fall apart. Management makes awful decisions. Most seasons end with a loss; if you're lucky, that loss takes place in the playoffs. In sports as in life, falling short is the natural order, par for the course. (In fact, golf is probably the perfect metaphor.)

[+] EnlargeShanahan
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireMike Shanahan's verbal spats with players have, in part, deflected attention from a debut season in Washington that has not lived up to expectations.

As such, fandom isn't really about winning. It's about believing your team can win -- and then enjoying the cathartic release of assigning fault when things go south, one Internet message board blast and talk radio call-in rant at a time.

Enter Haynesworth.

As a pure scapegoat, Haynesworth is better than Wade Phillips. Superior to Brad Childress. A cut above Bartman. Indeed, the disgruntled defensive tackle -- Scapegoat Rule No. 45: They're all disgruntled -- could very well be the Ali of fall guys. The Michael Jordan of the blame game. The greatest of all time.

Let's break it down:

Gooey guy who physically embodies a lack of maximum effort, whose nickname is Fat Albert?

Check.

Gargantuan paycheck at a time in which the economy is tanking, yet stadium beer prices remain unspeakably high?

Check.

Seeming sense of entitlement and unwillingness to defer to authority, coupled with oblivious, unapologetic, self-important and self-pitying public utterances?

Check, check and check.

Haynesworth is more than an inconsistent football player clashing with a fed-up coach and irritated teammates; he's a living, breathing compendium of everything sports fans hate. Make that love to hate. And that's the important part, the thing that gives him value. As a beat-up Donovan McNabb fumbles and the rest of his worn-down teammates stumble, Haynesworth gives fans a reason to care. To feel something beyond the numbness of another forgettable Redskins season that came in like a lion -- New coach! New quarterback! Here comes 12-4! -- and went out like Steve Spurrier, post-Osaka.

Ask yourself this: If Terrence Cody fails a Baltimore Ravens conditioning test, does it make a sound?

[+] EnlargeSnyder
Larry French/Getty ImagesWithout the protective shadow cast by Albert Haynesworth, owner Daniel Snyder could again be in the spotlight for the team's failures.

Does it become a long national nightmare?

Does Mike Golic take the same test ... and pass?

(Note: rhetorical questions.)

Anyone can be a scapegoat. Not everyone can excel at it. It takes a rare degree of unwitting and unintentional selflessness, something Haynesworth possesses in spades. On the field, Haynesworth at his best draws double- and triple-team blocks, freeing his teammates to excel; off the field, Haynesworth at his worst draws an extraordinary amount of slings and arrows, freeing everyone else from having to focus on their part in the problem.

Most recent case in point: Following a 31-7 Washington loss to the New York Giants for which Haynesworth was deactivated -- and therefore not in the game -- the defensive tackle was still the story, drawing anonymous fire from teammates, as if he were the reason the Giants amassed 197 rushing yards, dumping the Redskins from playoff contention in the process.

Never mind the defensive players who couldn't tackle.

Or the offense that couldn't score.

Or the coaching and management that built and shaped the roster.

Or the owner who has presided over a more than a decade of dysfunction and disappointment.

Or the fans who keep believing and anteing up, year after year, making all of the above possible.

No, never mind all that. Haynesworth is the obvious problem. Only now he's gone, suspended without pay for the last four games of the season. He likely won't be back. Thing is, I think he'll be missed. At least until the rest of us find someone else to blame.

Patrick Hruby is a freelance writer and ESPN.com contributor. Contact him at PatrickHruby.net.

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