Losing can become a habit. It certainly has for the Washington Redskins as far as the New York Giants are concerned. In recent years, the Giants have been the lock without a key, the puzzle without a solution, the cigarette and the blindfold.
Before Sunday's opener at FedEx Field, the Redskins had dropped six straight to Tom Coughlin's bunch and nine of 10. They had lost by a lot. They had lost by a little. But almost always, they had lost. What, they've been asking themselves, is it going to take to put a stop to that? The Giants aren't that much better than us. Or are they?
As it turned out, all it took to change the course of this series — for an afternoon, at least — was some big plays by players unburdened by the past. Rookies such as Ryan Kerrigan and Chris Neild, the Redskins' first and last draft picks. Free agent pickups such as Jabar Gaffney, Stephen Bowen and Sav Rocca. And let's not forget Tim Hightower, who the Arizona Cardinals, next week's opponent, were nice enough to send this way in a trade.
Collectively, that group produced three of the Redskins' four touchdowns, three of their four sacks, 72 of their 74 rushing yards and four beautifully placed punts inside the 20 to help the home team pull away to a 28-14 win. In terms of instant impact, you can't ask for much more.
It was Kerrigan, still settling in at his new outside linebacker spot, who made the single biggest play. Three snaps into the second half, he batted a pass by Eli Manning, gathered the ball in at the New York 9 and, depending on your point of view, either strolled or sauntered into the end zone to give Washington its first lead at 21-14.
Almost everything flowed from that — Neild's (two) and Bowen's (one) muggings of Manning, Gaffney's clinching 4-yard touchdown catch with 5:11 left, Rocca's pinning of the Giants at their 9-, 10- and 17-yard lines. Only once in the second half did the Giants cross midfield, and they came away empty at the Washington 31 when London Fletcher and Josh Wilson stuffed Ahmad Bradshaw on fourth-and-1.
As another newcomer, Barry Cofield, put it (in what might well be the Understatement of the Week): "We've got a lot of new faces on this defense that fit the scheme well. And coach Shanahan has a lot of new players on offense as well."
Those new faces couldn't have been much more visible Sunday. Granted, Hightower will have more consistent days - he was boom or bust against the Giants — but he did have a 22-yard gain and, later, a walk-in touchdown for the Redskins' first score. He also had three catches for 25 yards, giving him 97 yards from scrimmage (on a career-high 28 touches).
Neild's sacks, meanwhile, came in limited playing time — by his count, a mere 10 snaps. One of them caused a fumble at the New York 2 near the end of the third quarter, but Manning averted disaster by pouncing on it. (Neild, by the way, is the guy with the bushy beard, the one who, if he wasn't playing pro football, would probably be starring in "Ice Road Truckers" on the History Channel.)
It was left to Gaffney to supply the knockout blow — the first time the Redskins have delivered it under Shanahan, hard as it is to believe. Their biggest margin of victory last season was six points, and their six wins came by a total of 23. Jabar's TD put them up 14 and spared them from having to sweat out the final minutes. How often has that happened of late?
"You've got to put games away," he said. "It was great to get that two-touchdown lead at the end."
It didn't matter that the Giants were missing Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, their twin pass-rushing terrors, and others on their formidable defense. This is the NFL. You go to battle with the team you have. Besides, the Redskins, given their recent troubles against the New Yorkers, will take a victory over them any way they can get it.
Let's face it, if Shanahan is going to build anything here, it has to start with the Redskins playing their division rivals - all of them - tougher. They were 2-4 against the NFC East in his first season, pretty much in line with their 21-41 division record over the last decade. So when presented with an opportunity Sunday because of the Giants' battered state, the Redskins did what they needed to do. They beat a club that has owned them of late, coming back twice from a seven-point deficit. They weren't great in any one area, but they were good enough in most of them to grind out the win and take a positive vibe into their Week 2 matchup with Arizona.
It's always hard to know how much to read into a club's preseason performance. But the Redskins' 3-1 mark in exhibitions ended up being fairly predictive of how they would fare in the first game. They didn't jump out to a quick lead the way they'd been doing, but they played with great energy and just kept coming - until the Giants finally caved.
No, this is what you were looking for from the Redskins as they begin Year 2 of the Shanahan Era. This was progress. They looked like a solider team, a surer team, a team that has a better idea about what it's doing - even if, because of the lockout, it didn't have the benefit of an offseason. The Giants club they face the next time figures to be more of a challenge, won't be missing as many players; but by mid-December the Redskins could be much improved, too, provided they can build on this encouraging effort.
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