- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 27, 2012

At 3-6, the Washington Redskins were a mess. Coach Mike Shanahan talked about evaluating players and then, the next day, quickly clarified his meaning to explain he wasn’t calling it a season.

Soon after, Shanahan illustrated to his players what was ahead of them by putting the schedule up on a board for everyone to see. It crystallized what was ahead of this team.

“Before you’re kind of lost like, ‘Man, we’re 3-6, this isn’t going the way we want it to go.’ And then when coach gets up there and says, ‘Hey guys, everything we wanted at the beginning of the season is still attainable,’” tight end Logan Paulsen said. “I think it just kind of focuses you on a task.”

The task was to win out. The Redskins couldn’t lose, or else their hopes of winning the NFC East or making the playoffs would evaporate amid missed plays and blown opportunities.

Six straight victories later, the Redskins need just to beat the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night to clinch the division, or for the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears to lose earlier in the day to reach the postseason. The past several weeks have produced a “special run” to get the Redskins to this moment.

“Honestly to think that we would be able to win the division when you’re 3-6 after the loss we had with Carolina, it was definitely a down moment,” nose tackle Barry Cofield said. “The season was either going to go to hell at that point or we were going to fight back. Obviously, we are where we want to be.”

It’s hard to ask for more than control, the chance to win and get in. But the Redskins didn’t get to this point just by inspirational speeches and believing they could make it.

The evidence is in their play: An offense averaging more than 30 points a game thanks to the return of Pierre Garcon, a kicker in Kai Forbath who hasn’t missed a field goal attempt since he signed in October and a defense that came together despite season-ending injuries to Brian Orakpo, Adam Carriker and Brandon Meriweather.

Since the bye week, the Redskins have played like an entirely different team.

“Adding a guy like Pierre and we had Brandon for a week and just getting people healthy after the bye,” Cofield said. “I think we just came back energized and gained some confidence after that first Philly game and just the ball’s been rolling ever since then. Everyone individually’s been playing better.”

Garcon’s influence shouldn’t be overlooked. His presence in the opener at New Orleans, in just the first quarter when he played, showed flashes of what the offense could do.

A sprained right foot robbed him of the ability to play or practice effectively for most of September and October. Since returning against the Eagles on Nov. 18, Garcon has 33 catches for 434 yards and three touchdowns.

Pierre’s been awesome. A lot of people are saying when he’s in the game, he’s a difference maker for us,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “Pierre brings that attitude to the receiving corps. All of those guys are playing really, really well. He just tops it off and gives us better depth at receiver. You know, he’s our guy. When he’s out there, we can move the other receivers around a little bit more. So it’s good to have him out there.”

The Redskins also haven’t lost since Garcon returned.

“I just do my part, really. There’s nothing to it, really. Just got out there and help the team as much as I can,” Garcon said. “We got a young team, so guys are getting older and understanding the offense and getting confident in it, and they’re playing a lot better.”

Things could have gone downhill Oct. 21 when tight end Fred Davis was lost for the season with a torn left Achilles tendon, but Paulsen stepped up and the rest of the offense, including Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris, ramped up production.

Losing Davis wasn’t as much of an impetus for improvement as time, players said.

“I just think it’s everybody kind of coming into their own in this offense, everybody understanding what their role is and everybody starting to know the nuances of the offense. That doesn’t happen overnight, that takes a long time to develop,” Paulsen said. “I think you see it in other sports. I think a great example is the Miami Heat; they got all these great, talented players, but it took them a while to figure out how to win in the system because they all didn’t understand it.”

Griffin growing during his rookie season was part of the recipe, although he came into the NFL fairly polished and has only five interceptions to go with 20 touchdowns. During this streak, he and Kirk Cousins are 105-for-152 for 1,462 yards, 15 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 124.4 quarterback rating.

Dealing with a right knee injury suffered Dec. 9 against Baltimore, one impact Griffin made on the six-game roll the Redskins are on came when he addressed teammates and said the season wasn’t over.

“It’s self-talk. You want to talk yourself up, but you don’t say something you don’t believe in,” Griffin said. “Going on the break, I told everybody I was able to clear my head and just know that you don’t have to freak out in a situation like that.”

One of the major differences since the bye is that the Redskins haven’t lost control of games late.

“There were some early games where we were in them and in the fourth quarter the other team was making the plays to win the game,” Cofield said. “The biggest thing to me has just been making plays down the stretch.”

On defense, the evolution of linebacker Rob Jackson has helped fill the void left by Orakpo’s injury and made life easier for Ryan Kerrigan.

As a group, the defense improved from allowing 6.2 yards per play to 5.5.

“I think we’ve seen pretty much what a lot of offenses are going to do against our defense. We’ve seen and we’ve been put in a lot of different positions and situations,” Jackson said. “I think we can just go out there and play football now and play for each other.”

Winning makes it easier for any team to do that. As fullback Darrel Young said of the streak, “We’re just having fun.”

They’ve gotten some crucial bounces, such as a late Niles Paul fumble against the Ravens that instant replay reversed and Nick Foles’ underthrow of Jeremy Maclin in the end zone in waning seconds of Washington’s 27-20 win over Philadelphia on Sunday.

But players always say good teams make their own breaks, and from 3-6 to 9-6 the Redskins have become a good team. Even though they thought that all along.

“We got a lot of potential on this team. We all know that we got a lot of good players on this team; we just have to put it all together and make it work. That’s what we saw when we were 3-6,” Garcon said. “We knew who we got in this locker room; we knew all the players. All their skill sets, we just had to put it all together and continue to go.”