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The Agonizing Art of Alchemy

This week, NFL training camps around America open, ushering in another year of glorious fan optimism and breathless promise.

This will be the year *insert hapless mediocre franchise name here* proves everyone wrong and takes the NFL by storm. Miracles really are possible. The wisdom of all of those perplexing front office moves in the off-season will soon be revealed.

For NFL fans, hope doesn’t just spring eternal, it gushes forth like a Brooklyn fire hydrant opened for the kids in the heat of summer. And for all but a few NFL fans each season, its relief is just as fleeting. Before long, the inevitable realization that this year may prove to be just like every other in recent memory settles in, and is accepted with a resignation bordering on battle-fatigue.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the NFL, a crucial one that keeps fans not just engaged but obsessed, is the search for that ethereal and elusive recipe for success. NFL coaches, gurus, and would-be geniuses have had some 89 years to find the perfect roadmap to proven long-term success. Yet the way to glory is no more well-defined today than it was in 1920. Best-sellers 'Build a Winning NFL Franchise’ and 'Lombardi Trophies for Dummies’ have yet to appear on And lets face it, we likely wouldn’t read them if they did. It’s far more fun to believe in magic.

Webster’s defines alchemy as 'a medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold’. We’ve discovered electricity and the scientific method, but in the NFL, alchemists still abound. Mining is for suckers. Researching the best places to dig, meticulously building our plan to extract the gold once we’ve found it, and painstakingly crafting our company so it can mine gold for decades, not just for a year or two until our lucky find goes dry – this is exhausting, difficult work. Most NFL owners, front offices, and fans don’t have the stomach or patience for it. It’s much more exciting to withdraw like mad scientists to the backrooms of NFL planning offices, and plot the acquisition of our next magic ingredients, the one’s we firmly believe will take us to the Promised Land. That this same magical plan has left us with a pocket full of fool’s gold year after year does not deter.

Fantasy football isn’t just for working class beer-guzzling fanboys. There are plenty of millionaires playing it too.

But is there really another way to go for an NFL owner, coaching staff, or fan base? Every year, there are surprises, overachieving teams that ride roughshod over their more talented rivals to reach the playoffs and beyond. Isn’t that proof that alchemy works, that with a little luck and the right magic ingredients thrown in under a full moon, we could be 'this year’s Arizona Cardinals’? Maybe. Or it could simply prove that even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in awhile.

I love magic. I love a great surprise. And hell, there’s nothing I love more than an underdog. Watching my beloved Redskins, ever-competitive, never entirely hopeless, at risk to eke out a 1 point overtime win nearly any Sunday, is a life commitment. As I’ve gotten a little grayer though, I can’t help but wonder – surely there are lessons out there, embedded deeply in 80+ years of NFL history and winning tradition, ripe for the harvesting. Let’s call them 'Lombardi Best Practices’ so our corporate readers can follow along. And if those basic tenets guaranteed to lead to long-term, sustainable franchise success are out there, waiting to be revealed, is it beyond the realm of possibility that my beloved franchise could be the one to rediscover them?

As a card-carrying beer-guzzling fanboy, I’m more than willing to take an uneducated guess at what a secret recipe for NFL success might look like:

Lombardi Stew

- Preheat oven to playoff temperature.

- Prepare NFL coach. Select ripe former coordinators (beer gut, representing lack of ego and ability to focus single-mindedly on the right priorities, preferred). Season with experience (age with future HOF head coach prior to use if possible). Sprinkle liberally with league average salary to ensure coaching ego in check. Once seasoned, allow coach to assist in obtaining remaining ingredients. (IMPORTANT: If coach noted to utter inane phrases like 'we sure got our tater’s mashed out there today daggnabbit!’, throw stew out and start over, you may have selected a rotten coach).

- Prepare soup base by selecting highest quality linemen possible. This is most important. Carefully inspect character of linemen as without adequate attention to quality of this ingredient, stew will never come together properly. Once lineman selected, pound repeatedly to ensure they are ready for stew and have the proper consistency. Keep plenty of quality linemen in the fridge in case you need extras – if you run out, it will be very difficult to finish your stew.

- While assembling remaining ingredients, use homegrown items whenever possible. Avoid use of expensive store-bought additions. Overpriced specialty items, while they can add color, they often will not blend well with other ingredients. Do not borrow ingredients from neighbors – they may be lousy shoppers or be trying to clean out their own refrigerator.

- Bring QB to room temperature slowly – do not place frozen QB directly into boiling stew. Gently stir QB into stew, adding other ingredients slowly. It is not necessary to purchase the most expensive QB available at the supermarket. Look for a solid one with overall good quality. Proper preparation will make even a discount cut juicy and delicious.

- Cook all ingredients over a slow, even flame, and avoid rushing – great stew takes time. Stay out of the kitchen while your coach cooks. Avoid opening oven door to taste stew or to add additional ingredients. If you have prepared with solid ingredients, it is only a matter of time before your delicious stew will be ready to serve to your anxiously waiting guests.

- Serves 92,000

Our beloved Redskins are in a period of organizational transition – there’s no doubt about it. Many believe the Joe Gibbs II era was ultimately a failure. My hope is that those critics are wrong, and that Gibb’s lasting legacy (beyond delivering Super Bowl glory) will have been turning this franchise away from alchemy towards a long-range plan for success. There are consistent traits and approaches common to winning franchises. If you look hard enough, they’re there for the viewing.

And I believe it was Joe Gibb’s commitment to his 'plan’ and his discipline in sticking by it that once made the Redskins a force to be reckoned with in the NFC East. It wasn’t luck, it wasn’t genius, and it sure as hell wasn’t who was playing QB for us. Whether or not our current Redskin’s leadership truly learned anything from a man who for decades epitomized NFL success remains to be seen. As Redskins fans watch Jim Zorn entering year 2 of his DC adventure, I’m looking for evidence we’ve armed ourselves with more than a divining rod or magic potion to find gold again.
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