Tuesday, November 20, 2001

Somewhere in your file cabinet of repressed memories, you probably have a few jottings about the Redskins starting out 7-1 five years ago and then missing the playoffs. It’s amazing how the course of a season can change in the NFL for the worse in the case of the ‘96 Redskins and for the better in the case of this year’s club.
At 4-5, Marty Schottenheimer’s minions aren’t quite candidates for a ticker-tape parade, but a four-game winning streak on the heels of a five-game losing streak isn’t something you see every day in pro football. And while I haven’t done any exhaustive studies on the matter, I suspect there have been more 7-1 teams that had the bottom fall out (because of injuries, bad luck, etc.) than 0-5 teams that have played their way into contention.
Marco Coleman has seen both sides of it. In ‘93, his second season in the league, his Dolphins club was 9-2, had its next three games at home and “didn’t even make the playoffs,” he says, wincing at the thought. “All we had to do was beat New England in the last week to get in, and we couldn’t do it [losing in overtime to the 4-11 Patriots]. That’s how quickly it can turn around.”
It can turn around even quicker these days. Back then, the destabilizing effect of free agency was only beginning to be felt. Clubs the successful ones were much more solidly put together (read: deeper).
“It seemed like there were always one or two powerhouse teams that you knew would be there in the end,” Coleman says. “Now nobody knows how it’s going to turn out.” It’s scary and exhilarating at the same time.
Maybe what we’re seeing, Redskins fans, is a balancing of the scales, a payback for the ‘96 collapse. Or maybe this four-game tear the club is on is just a tease and won’t lead anywhere. Like Marco says, nobody knows.
This much we do know, though: After five weeks of thrashing around, the Redskins have found a winning formula. And its main elements are a determined defense, good kicking, a respectable running game and a minimum of turnovers. Not exactly thrill-a-minute stuff, but then Schottenheimer has never been much for style points.
In fact, the Redskins are finally beginning to resemble the team you figured they’d be when they lost all those offensive players in the offseason. After Brad Johnson, Larry Centers, James Thrash et al. cleaned out their lockers, it was clear the Redskins weren’t going to win by outscoring opponents. They were going to have to play a bunch of 9-7, 21-14, 17-10 games and hope they came out on top in most of them.
And lately, they have. Their defense, once hesitant and breakdown prone, has started playing up to its abilities, stifling the limited offenses of the Panthers, Giants, Seahawks and Broncos like a good defense should. Brett Conway, meanwhile, has made 12 of 14 field goal tries, Stephen Davis has been running the ball with Riggo-like consistency and the turnover differential has improved from minus-4 to plus-2.
It’s a nerve-wracking way to play, of course every mistake looming, potentially, so large. But coming from behind, on the road, to defeat Denver with a fourth-quarter touchdown drive shows the Redskins are bearing up well under the strain. What a switch, huh? Suddenly, they’re winning the close ones after losing so many of them during the Norv Turner era.
And every game that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger (or something like that). That’s where the Redskins are right now as they prepare for first-place Philadelphia feeling like, if they can just keep the game close for three quarters, they’ll figure out something. LaVar Arrington will jar the ball loose or Champ Bailey will make a play or Kent Graham will work his magic again.
Who would have believed? If the Redskins can manage 60 more minutes of inspired football Sunday, they can plant themselves firmly in the division race. They’ll be at home three of the four weeks after that (with one side trip to Arizona).
It’s ridiculous, it really is. For five games, the Redskins weren’t just bad, they were historically bad. You had to go back four, five, six decades to find teams that compared with them, awfulness-wise. And now they’re headed to Veterans Stadium with visions of a playoff berth dancing in their helmets. That, to quote Marco Coleman, is how quickly it can turn around in today’s NFL.

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