EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It was never about the playoffs for the Washington Redskins this season. Not, certainly, after the decision was made to stand pat at the quarterback spot.
For the rebuilding Redskins, it was more about another p-word: progress. Would they be in a better place in January than they were September? In Year 2, would Mike Shanahan lay a little more of the foundation?
The team has gone through some tough times in the past 15 weeks, including a quarterback change that backfired, a six-game losing streak and more injuries than you can shake a stethoscope at. But unlike so many other downward-trending clubs, the Redskins have come out the other end. In their past four games, they've won at Seattle, nearly knocked off New England and, Sunday at MetLife Stadium, handed the New York Giants 23-10 beating, putting a serious crimp in the latter's postseason hopes.
If the Redskins can keep it going against Minnesota and Philadelphia — and turn 4-9 into 7-9 (or even 6-10) — they can take momentum into the offseason. Who would have imagined that a month ago, when their coach appeared to be standing knee-deep in rubble? It would have to be considered, under the circumstances, the Best Possible Outcome.
"We want to win out, set the tone for next season and be the team we want to be," said Barry Cofield, who's now 2-for-2 against his old club. Cofield's message to his mates afterward was along much the same lines. There's no reason why they can't play like this every week, he told them. "We['ve] got this in us. This wasn't a once-in-a-while thing."
We'll see about that. Talk, after all, is cheap at this time of year. But the Redskins definitely have pulled themselves together since Grossman returned to the lineup, even with an offensive line that's still a trivia question. (Willie Smith? Mo Hurt? Tyler Polumbus? Who are these guys?)
Sunday "these guys" helped the offense control the ball for 35 minutes and held the hard-charging New York pass rush to a single sack. And if you can keep your quarterback upright against the Giants, he can take advantage of their highly suspect secondary, one that gave Jabar Gaffney, Santana Moss and Donte Stallworth plenty of room to roam.
Yes, the Redskins have issues. But you look at the trouble the Giants — and the Patriots before them — have covering people and, well, you realize there isn't this gigantic chasm separating Shanny's warriors from the Haves and Semi-Haves in the NFL. Every team has weaknesses; it's mostly a matter of how many (and how serious they are).
Not to over-romanticize it, but the Redskins seem to have rediscovered the joy in the game in recent days. Just because you're out of playoff contention and the laughingstock of the Twitterverse doesn't mean you can't still have some fun. Indeed, it's at moments like these that you're almost obliged to ... let go — if only to keep your sanity.
Against the Patriots, the Redskins had Brandon Banks, their miniature return man, throw a touchdown pass. (The very idea.) And against the Giants, they began the game with a flea-flicker — Roy Helu taking the handoff and then flipping the ball back to Grossman, who heaved it downfield in the general direction of Moss. New York's Corey Webster came down with the interception, but that was almost beside the point. The point was: Once again, the Redskins were holding nothing back.
And let's face it, football is a hold-nothing-back sport. Go anything less than all out, and you're likely to get knocked into next week. The past few games, the Redskins have been putting forth the kind of effort that usually brings positive results. Perhaps they've finally turned a corner, figured out that effort as much is talent is what's going to return them to relevance in the NFL. (As if that's any great secret.)
It's been a long time since the Redskins controlled an opponent as completely as they did the Giants. For the second week in a row, they put up big points in the first half — 17 (after dropping 20 on the Pats) — only this time they had a big lead to go with it. And as Cofield said, "It makes a great difference. You've got a chance to make a team one-dimensional. The defensive coordinator can really open his playbook, and you can really harass the quarterback, get hits on him and create plays for the secondary. It's just a whole different ballgame."
The plays created by this harassment were a season-high three interceptions — by O.J. Atogwe, DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson. With Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan and others constantly flying at him, Manning (23 of 40, 45.5 passer rating) never got in a rhythm. In fact, you wouldn't have guessed the Giants have one of the best passing attacks in the league, with Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks both over 1,000 yards.
"You feel good about the way they've played," Shanahan said. "... To finish the way we did today was nice, to kind of have the game under control and not put a lot of pressure on the players in the fourth quarter."
Now the Redskins just have to finish the season the way they finished the Giants — and the way they wish they had finished the Patriots. Then they can head into the offseason with justifiable optimism, with the conviction that the worst is behind them and that better times are ahead.
© Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.