Off-field drama sucks all the fun out of Giants-Redskins rivalry

It has been a while since it was a big deal when the Giants played Washington.

It was the biggest game of the week with standing in the NFC East at stake. Joe Gibbs and the Hogs against Bill Parcells and his Giants were classic encounters, while Michael Strahan and Eli Manning had a few special moments at FedEx Field en route to Super Bowl glory.

When the ancient rivals prepare to meet Sunday at FedEx Field, what’s happening off the field is being talked about more than what might happen on the field. It makes the game between the Giants (4-8) and Washington (6-6) feel like a footnote to everyone except the fans and the players.

“Division games mean a lot no matter what the circumstances are,” tight end Evan Engram said Friday at the Giants’ practice facility. “A division game on the road is a big game. There’s definitely a lot of history in this division with a lot of rivalries. Any division game is big. The whole week is big.”

Much of this week has centered on Washington’s decision to sign linebacker Reuben Foster, who was released by the 49ers after being arrested on domestic abuse charges. His accuser, Elissa Ennis, called Washington’s signing “a slap in the face.” Foster has since been placed on the Commissioner’s Exempt list.

The heat on Washington intensified when video surfaced of Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt kicking a woman during a heated argument last February.

Instead of talking about the renewal of the ancient rivalry, Washington and the NFL are being rightfully admonished for the lack of protocol in such incidents. Foster shouldn’t have been allowed to be claimed by any team and every team should have had the decency not to sign him. Washington didn’t. The Giants went through this in 2016 when kicker Josh Brown admitted to having an abusive relationship with his wife and questions rose about how much the organization overlooked.

In each case, the league and its teams come off looking like they either should have known more or were hiding what they knew. Sadly, it looks as if the NFL learned nothing from what happened with Ray Rice. This era of cameras everywhere and social media makes it hard to hide the ugly. Everyone deserves better: the victims, the families, the fans and the players who try be good people.

Football Sundays are supposed to be about rivalries like Giants-Redskins even if it’s different now with players changing uniforms every season and the two franchises struggling to win games. The Giants are in full transition while Washington, with quarterback Alex Smith done for the season after a gruesomely broken leg, doesn’t know exactly where it’s at. Still, it’s not a footnote to those involved.

“I don’t ever want to minimize the importance of an NFC East matchup,” Giants head coach Pat Shurmur said. “I think the rivalries are huge. You play each other twice. With the Eagles winning the Super Bowl every team in our division has Super Bowl trophies. There’s great tradition in the NFC East.”

Rivalries are their best when both teams are good. That’s the way it was with Gibbs and Parcells. Still, regardless of record there’s always an edge to this game.

“I think the fans help you feel that,” Engram said. “These division games mean a lot to them. You see it on social media. You see it on television. You see the importance of history and all the classic moments these games have had and all the great teams that have been in this division. It’s easy to get reminded of that.”

Linebacker Alec Olgetree, in his first season with the Giants, is starting to feel how these division games are different.

“I’m definitely getting into the swing of things with all the rivalries in this division,” he said. “This division hasn’t been the greatest one this year. But there’s still a lot of heart out there. The teams don’t like each other.”

Maybe soon it will be like the old days again, when what might happen on the field isn’t tainted by what’s happening off of it.