- The Washington Times - Monday, September 2, 2002

Despite another offseason of upheaval, the Washington Redskins enter 2002's opening week fairly certain they can make a legitimate run at their first playoff berth since 1999.
The club has made major coaching changes and turned over much of its roster for the third consecutive year, but returning veterans think they've adjusted to coach Steve Spurrier, defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis and their new teammates. Now they are eager to see how a 4-1 preseason translates.
"I think we're looking pretty good coming into the season," safety Sam Shade said late last week. "I'm still very optimistic, especially considering what New England did last year going to the Super Bowl when nobody gave them a shot. I just feel like, 'Why not us?' I think that's how a lot of guys on the team feel."
New England went 5-11 in 2000 before winning Super Bowl XXXVI. In fact, the league's past three champions did not go to the playoffs the year before their title run. Washington at least fits that mold, going 8-8 each of the past two years after losing at Tampa Bay in 1999's divisional round of the playoffs.
But to even reach the playoffs this year, Washington once again must overcome significant change a constant theme since Dan Snyder bought the team in 1999. Defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, like Shade a holdover through four head coaches and four defensive coordinators in the past four years, expressed confidence while not pretending that it's easy to replace key figures.
"We lose core players," Wilkinson said. "We lose guys like Larry Centers, Tre Johnson, Kenard [Lang], Marco [Coleman], Brian Mitchell, James Thrash.
"You're going to lose core guys here and there, but they've got to be replaced. For the most part, they have been. You miss them, their personality and the friendships, but we've brought in great guys."
Nonetheless, the Redskins' transition appears to have been aided in several ways most notably by maintaining a core of talented young players at crucial positions.
For example, the installation of Spurrier's offense a strikingly different scheme from Marty Schottenheimer's in 2001 was eased by the presence of standout tackles Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen, No.1 wide receiver Rod Gardner and Pro Bowl running back Stephen Davis. And on defense, having linebacker LaVar Arrington and top young cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Fred Smoot gave Lewis a terrific foundation.
Guard Brenden Stai, obtained in a trade with the Detroit Lions a week and a half ago, immediately noticed a difference in attitude between his old and new teams. He said it was difficult to tell the Redskins had undergone so much turnover in recent years and he compared the club's mentality to the Pittsburgh Steelers' in the mid-1990s, when he participated in a Super Bowl berth and several playoff runs for that club.
"The one thing I've really noticed is that everybody is determined and striving for one goal," Stai said. "You can really sense that on teams. Some teams there's a little disparity. You don't feel, I suppose the word I'm looking for is, 'unity.' But this team, in my opinion, exudes that unity."
Stai credits the club's well-defined leadership, a factor undoubtedly aided by the rapid maturing of Samuels and Arrington, the second and third overall picks in the 2000 draft. Both young stars went to the Pro Bowl last season and emerged as leaders through their actions and words.
Meanwhile, on offense Jansen remains an important leader, and on defense linebacker Jeremiah Trotter filled some of the void created when defensive end Marco Coleman was cut.
Also aiding Washington's transition has been how much players like and respect the new staff. Players immediately bonded with Spurrier and Lewis and accepted their schemes, even though the coaches were new and Spurrier had characteristics real and perceived not having coached in the NFL, not working all night, not coaching players outside the quarterbacks and wide receivers that seemed like tough sells on veteran players.
"I think he talks to the defensive guys more than the offensive guys," Trotter said of Spurrier. "It makes me feel good when the coach comes down and just shoots the breeze with you. He knows everyone's names that's real important. He may not say them correctly all the time, but he knows them."
Laughing, Trotter added: "But he's a great guy. I think he kind of lets Marvin run the defense, but as far as coming down and knowing what's going on, he's still the head coach. He still has the final word on what goes on."
In contrast to Spurrier's instant likeability was Schottenheimer's attempt to instill discipline. However, players last year felt like the team was moving in the right direction by finishing 8-3. The former personnel staff, led by Schottenheimer, planned to undergo little change and bring back most of the team's unrestricted free agents.
This summer the talent of newcomers like Trotter, linebacker Jessie Armstead and defensive end Renaldo Wynn, as well as the performance of Spurrier's offense, helped players forget the downside of change.
Additionally, there was a feeling that the right changes were made: the defense mixed name free agents with seven holdover starters, the special teams remained largely intact, and the offense, while much different, needed alteration after ranking 28th.
But the biggest key to adapting to the Spurrier era might be that Redskins players simply are so accustomed to change. Late last year it was easy to find veterans who privately dreaded the impending turnover and argued that the team should remain together; late last week the talk had turned mostly to optimism about the new regime and "professionalism" in any case.
"Some people would say [it's difficult to endure change], but we're professionals and that's the way the business is," Davis said. "You've got to be able to make adjustments on the move, and I think we've done a great job of doing that. Now I think we'll have some stability. We just have to go out and do the things it takes to win games."

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