So much of success in the NFL is just winning the games you’re capable of winning. The Washington Redskins have lost too many of those in recent years — to the Detroit Lions, the St. Louis Rams, the Tampa Bay Bucs. (I’ll stop there, lest I be accused of belaboring the painful point.)
Sunday at FedEx Field, the Redskins were on the verge of losing another, this one to the Arizona Cardinals. Despite dominating the first half everywhere but on the scoreboard — thanks in large part to two Rex Grossman interceptions — they found themselves behind 21-13 with 10:58 left after a Kevin Kolb-to-Larry Fitzgerald bomb. Was it really going to happen again? After a promising season opener, were they really going to go back to being Team Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda?
Not on this afternoon, at least. In their first brush with serious adversity in 2011, the Redskins responded the way a team with playoff aspirations is supposed to respond. They put together a 13-play drive to score on an 18-yard, fourth-down pass from Grossman to Santana Moss. Then, following a missed two-point try, they quickly forced a punt and marched down the field again, leaving Graham Gano to boot a 34-yard field goal with 1:45 to go for a 22-21 win.
Let’s face it, the Redskins have spent the past decade, if not longer, losing games like this. It’s been the absolute bane of their (and their fans’) existence. A year ago, 10 of their games were decided by four points or less — and they found a way to lose six of them. One such way was to botch an extra-point snap with nine seconds remaining. Another was to blow a 27-10 third quarter lead.
The latter came in Week 2, when the Redskins had a chance, as they did Sunday, to start the season with two victories — and get some early traction in Mike Shanahan’s first year as coach. Instead, they set the tone for the rest of season by letting a winnable game get away.
Against the Cardinals, though, they may have set an entirely different tone, a whatever-it-takes tone that can win you a lot of games. Granted, we’re just two weeks into the schedule, but maybe these Redskinsaren’t like their predecessors. They’ve certainly been telling us that since training camp. And if they keep pulling out these close ones, we might have to start believing them.
To hear the players tell it, there was no panic on the Washington sideline when the Cards came back in the second half — with Beanie Wells rushing for large chunks of yardage — and went up by eight on the 73-yard heave to Fitzgerald. As Hall, who was burned by on the All-Pro wideout, put it: “It’s just maturity, man. This is a game that probably last year we lose. We’ve got a different team now, a different attitude. We’ve got some fighters in here.”
Part of the reason for the Redskins‘ calm, nose tackle Barry Cofield said, is that “the offense had moved the ball all day. We knew they had the ability to score.” And indeed, Grossman rebounded from his two picks to throw for 291 yards and two touchdowns, and Tim Hightower (96 yards) and Roy Helu (74) took turns punching holes in the Arizona defensive front. That’s a big change from last year, when the Redskinsdidn’t have much ability to score — and thus, every one of their mistakes was magnified.
Beyond that, though, they just seem to have a confidence this season that was missing before, a confidence that has replaced the false bravado of previous years. “For some reason,” Trent Williams said, “I just knew we were going to get [the win]. I don’t want to sound cocky, but I felt it.”
The Redskins aren’t just playing with self-assurance, they’re playing a little mad. You have to understand, Moss said, “We have guys who don’t get the recognition they should get because the team hasn’t won. We sit around in the offseason thinking about it: We don’t get any respect. That’s why I didn’t want to go anywhere [in free agency]. It’s taken me this long to be part of something [special].”
We got an inkling of this sea change at the beginning of last week, when the Redskins passed up their traditional Victory Monday after beating the New York Giants and came to work instead. And Sunday we got an even bigger inkling when they pulled themselves together in the fourth quarter and willed their way to a win.
“In years past,” Moss went on, if the team found itself in that situation, “we’d say, ‘Here we go again.’ Now we just say, ‘It’s our turn to score.’ “
Such little things separate winners from losers in the NFL. For a long time, the Redskins have lacked those little things, lacked the intangibles — the ability, as much as anything, to deliver when it matters most. The past two Sundays, though, they’ve been at their very best in the final minutes. And as a result, they’re 2-0 for just the fourth time in the Dan Snyder era. The last two times — under Joe Gibbs in 2005 and 2007 — they made the playoffs.
“I was just joking with the guys,” Cofield said. “I told them, ‘We were a couple of plays away from being a miserable locker room, and now we’re one that’s excited and looking forward.’ The margin of victory is razor-thin in this league. We talk about it in meetings. The difference between being in the playoffs and not is very small. And once you’re in, anybody can win.”
Cofield learned that lesson as a rookie, when his Giants club caught fire in the postseason and went all the way. Nobody’s making any such predictions for the Redskins, but you have to like what you’ve seen so far. They’ve won two games they were capable of winning, against teams no better than themselves - and now they have another one in Dallas.