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.”
Shanahan during training camp spoke those words with cautious optimism. He understands there are no guarantees. But the vision with which he arrived in January 2010 continues to crystallize.
His great task after inheriting one of the league’s oldest teams was injecting character, talent, specialized skills and youth into the roster. He needed a quarterback. The defensive personnel had to be overhauled to suit the 3-4 front he desired. He needed offensive playmakers around the quarterback, and he needed more athletic offensive linemen for his zone running scheme.
Washington targeted committed, dedicated players to anchor the rebuild. Coaches see the effects of that each day.
“We work hard, our guys practice hard, they study hard, they do everything, and it comes from Coach Shanahan, obviously,” said defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, who coached the New Orleans Saints from 2000 to 2005. They won their division his first year but never made the playoffs again.
“They do everything they are asked to do, and they do it right,” Haslett continued. “First of all, it is a good group of guys. There’s guys you can rely on, their reliability. They’re accountable, and that’s the kind of guys you like to surround yourself with.”
That might seem to be trite praise, but actually it’s a vital element of program building for those who have done it successfully — and unsuccessfully — at the NFL level.
“Our mantra was: ‘Hard work, 100 percent effort all the time is the price of admission. No excuses, no explanations. Smart, fast, physical,’” said Polian, who now serves as an ESPN analyst. “Those are the pillars upon which you build your program. I know Mike does the same thing. He may use different words or phrases, but I know he does the same thing because his teams play that way.”
Polian bristled at the suggestion that the Redskins‘ 2012 season left something to be desired. That Washington started 3-6 and needed a seven-game winning streak to make the playoffs does not matter to him.
“I’m not into the, ‘You have to win 12 games every year,’ because we won a lot of games every year and only won one Super Bowl, and nobody was patting us on the back for winning 12 games,” he said. “To me, it’s get in the playoffs and then do what you have to do to advance after that.”
The quest for the postseason, then, is simplified into winning the four-team division. Shanahan emphasizes divisional success because all eight champions are guaranteed a postseason home game.
The Redskins compare favorably to Dallas, New York and Philadelphia particularly because of how young, talented and dedicated quarterback Robert Griffin III is.
Last season, Griffin set NFL rookie records for quarterback rating (102.4), interception percentage (1.27) and rushing yards by a quarterback (815). He led an offense that averaged a league-leading 6.2 yards per play. With such a dynamic running and passing threat emerging as a locker room leader at age 23, the Redskins are well situated at the most important position in the sport.
Uncertainty about the long-term health of Griffin’s right knee, in which he has twice had his ACL surgically reconstructed, weakens the Redskins‘ staying power. But he is scheduled to start Washington’s season-opener against Philadelphia on Monday night, only eight months after his latest knee surgery.
“The goal is longevity in the league,” Griffin said. “You also want to win. As a quarterback, I don’t like to conform and say that you can’t win outside the pocket; I think you can win outside the pocket; you’ve just got to be smart about it. That’s what I’ve learned over the past six months about myself and just about what we need to do to win.
“Maybe that’s keeping me in the pocket a little bit more. Maybe that’s throwing the ball away a little bit more, sliding, doing all of those things that are necessary. I think I proved how tough I am and the heart that I have on the football field and my teammates know that.”
Shanahan spent his first three offseasons in Washington building a quality supporting cast for his quarterback. Eleven total wins in the first two years show the difficulty of that process, but the Redskins finally have amassed playmakers on offense and the core of a fine 3-4 defense.
Sixth-round running back Alfred Morris finished second in the NFL with 1,613 rushing yards as a rookie last season, and Pierre Garcon had 633 receiving yards and four touchdowns in only 10 games.
Washington’s 3-4 front requires an exceptional nose tackle and pair of outside linebackers. Both outside linebackers, Orakpo (age 27) and Ryan Kerrigan (25), have made the Pro Bowl. And Barry Cofield (29) has evolved into one of the NFL’s quickest and most effective 3-4 nose tackles in just two years at the position.
“I don’t see any reason they should not be contenders,” Polian said. “They’ve got the coach. They’ve got the quarterback. They’ve got some defensive difference makers. They’ve got the receivers. And most importantly, they’ve got a running game that’s going to be there week in and week out.”
Intangibles make a difference
Talent alone doesn’t win titles, though. The high-priced 2000 Redskins and the 2011 “Dream Team” Philadelphia Eagles could attest to that. Critical intangibles make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, Polian said. Good injury fortune is imperative, as are confidence, team chemistry and leadership.
Several members of the Redskins organization are optimistic they’ve achieved the right blend of youth, talent, experience and leadership. Defensive backs coach Raheem Morris opined as such, drawing on his head coaching experience from 2009-11 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tampa Bay won the AFC South title with a 10-6 record in 2010, but it was sandwiched between three- and four-win seasons, the latter of which cost Morris his job.
Morris saw proof in Washington during the offseason in his position meetings. After the Redskins drafted cornerback David Amerson in the second round, veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall and safety Brandon Meriweather ensured he would adjust to life as a pro.
“It’s the voice of those veteran leaders going to Amerson in a meeting, handing him a paper and a pad and teaching him how to use his iPad and learn and get better every single day,” Morris said. “Those guys are the guys that are leaders amongst men, and once you get those kind of guys, that’s the difference between the young team we had in Tampa and the young team that we have in Washington.”
Amerson, in turn, enjoys using veterans such as Hall as resources.
“If I have a question, I’ll go to him and ask him,” he said. “For one example, as far as press technique, pressing outside leverage. Just really let the guy come to you, be patient and squeezing inside routes and kill all outside routes.”
That’s part of the positive culture Shanahan has tried to establish. It includes an expectation to win. Shanahan during team meetings constantly reminds his players of their statistical achievements to reinforce belief in their abilities.
Redskins veterans, though, know the importance of navigating the difference between confidence and complacency.
Santana Moss adjusted his receiver’s gloves as he sat at his locker before practice last month. The team’s longest-tenured player stopped for a moment when asked to contemplate how close the Redskins are to being elite.
Moss thought about the roster and about the struggles the franchise has endured during his eight seasons. He took into account last year’s success and decided there is no such thing as momentum in the NFL.
He knows from experience how elusive success can be.
“Honestly, we haven’t done nothing this season, yet,” he said. “You can’t really dwell off what we did last year and expect it’s going to happen like that for us this year. Until we go out and win some games, then we can see how close we are. And even when we do that, we have to really keep winning and keep being good to even have that kind of talk.”