The calm inside the locker room belied the magnitude of the moment on that freezing night last December in Landover.
The Washington Redskins, irrelevant in the NFL for much of the previous two decades, had just completed the most remarkable turnaround. Their seventh straight victory — this one over the archrival Dallas Cowboys on national TV, no less — crowned them champions of the NFC East division for the first time in 13 years. Cheers, hugs and high-fives warmed the oppressed souls of Redskins fans as they streamed into the parking lot.
Deep inside the stadium, though, the mood was different.
Brian Orakpo’s baritone voice rose above others in his corner of the Redskins‘ locker room, and he didn’t even play in the game, having been on injured reserve for three months. His teammates performed their usual postgame ritual. They cleaned up, changed clothes and went home.
Eight months later, at the dawn of a another season, that scene resonates because of how the team’s collective demeanor revealed its true expectations. The Redskins weren’t satisfied by the division title that night, and they definitely aren’t now.
Winning in the NFL, however, is elusive. The league is structured to foster competitive balance and parity. In the NFL, what goes up eventually comes down. The ultimate goal, then, is staying power — maximizing potential, sustaining a high standard and keeping the window to success open for as long as possible.
In the fourth season of coach Mike Shanahan and general manager Bruce Allen’s partnership, the Redskins are as close to achieving true staying power as they have been since the franchise’s glory years of the 1980s and early 1990s. Whether they seize it will define their 2013 season.
“There’s no question that making the playoffs and winning seven in a row is an excellent season,” said Bill Polian, who oversaw the Indianapolis Colts’ sustained prominence as vice chairman from 1998 to 2011. “So how do you build on that? How do you replicate it? Your goal is always to get in the playoffs, however you get there. I think the Skins have a team that’s capable of doing that right now.”
Rebuilding with character
Ask executives, coaches and players what separates teams with staying power from those without, and the answers are complex and varied enough to fill a book — collective health, skilled players, roster depth and youth, a big-game quarterback, talented scouts and established leadership, to name a few.
That’s a testament to how difficult staying power is to achieve in the NFL. The differences between the few elite teams and those that only taste success can be either minute or vast, but they all are meaningful.
That shows in the final standings every season. The Redskins last year were one of four playoff teams that did not qualify for the postseason in 2011. In each of 16 seasons from 1996 through 2011, at least five of the 12 postseason teams did not qualify the previous year.
The margin between success and failure is razor-thin in some cases, and that’s where the Redskins find themselves. They have advanced out of rebuilding to the fringe of the elite with what appears to be a sustainable program.
“That’s what you’re looking for, when you’re not sure who’s going to make your football team and you have some depth at a number of positions that you haven’t had in a few years,” Shanahan said. “So, yeah, that does make you feel good.
“Not only do you have depth, you have guys that have the character you’re looking for as well. So, very happy where we’re at this year. You’re always keeping your fingers crossed that you can stay as healthy as you can possibly be, and hopefully we’ll be a little bit lucky — luckier this year than we have been in the past.”