- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2008

When did things turn around for the Washington Redskins? How did a wretched November somehow translate into a glorious December? Who is central to the team’s second playoff appearance in three years? Why did a team that couldn’t hold onto a second-half lead morph into a third- and fourth-quarter team?

Nearly everybody at Redskin Park posed with those questions mentioned four individuals and their actions since last offseason: a Hall of Fame coach, a journeyman backup quarterback, an established middle linebacker and an assistant coach in need of a big year.

Joe Gibbs. A day after safety Sean Taylor’s funeral, he told the team: “When you accomplish something great, it’s after you’ve gone through some great tragedy.” They bought into the Hall of Famer’s message.

Todd Collins. He relieved Jason Campbell in the Chicago game Dec. 6 and ended up playing at an All-Pro level during his relief appearance and three starts (all wins).

London Fletcher. Signed in the opening hours of free agency last March, he has become an on-field leader and an off-field mentor.

Gregg Williams. He might have faced the toughest task of all: Devise game plans that no longer included his best player — Taylor, who died Nov. 27, a day after he suffered a gunshot wound.

That quartet — along with Clinton Portis, Santana Moss, Shawn Springs and countless others — have banded together at the right time entering today’s NFC wild card game at Seattle.

“When you get into a tough situation like we were, it would have been hard for anybody to think we would get into the playoffs or have a chance to get on a run like this,” Gibbs said. “There was nothing there to give you that thought. For us to do this, it’s a tribute to our players and the attitude they’ve had.”

Gibbs: Mr. Steady

In the final seconds against Buffalo, Gibbs called consecutive timeouts to freeze kicker Rian Lindell, which merited a 15-yard penalty. A 51-yard field goal became a 36-yard attempt, which Lindell made for a 17-16 Bills win, the fifth time Washington had lost when leading at halftime.

Gibbs claimed he had forgotten about the timeout rule.

“That was the worst moment of my career,” Gibbs said.

The next day, he spoke at Taylor’s funeral. The next morning, Gibbs addressed the team with a simple message: Things can’t get any worse.

Washington beat the Bears on Dec. 6 and despite losing Campbell, are back in the playoffs for the 10th time in Gibbs’ 15 seasons.

The coach has stepped up his game. He listened to his staff and made a key challenge against Minnesota. He has switched the practice schedule to take wear off his players. And he has stayed out of play-caller Al Saunders’ way, which has led to the Redskins extending second-half leads, not clinging to them.

“Players respond to honesty and they respond to people who are consistent in their approach,” Saunders said. “He’s won three Super Bowls and players always respect and admire success. They feel like if they listen to Joe and understand the message he’s trying to get across, they might get a Super Bowl ring, too.”

Said safety Reed Doughty, who replaced Taylor in the lineup: “[Gibbs is] pretty steady. … Any time as a player, you know what to expect, for me, that brings security.”

Collins: Who knew?

The results of Collins’ first three plays after replacing Campbell late in the second quarter against Chicago: one-hop incompletion, 4-yard pass, turnover (sack and lost fumble).

Collins, of course, quickly got into a groove. His next pass was a 21-yard touchdown to Todd Yoder. Since replacing Campbell, Collins has completed 63.8 percent of his passes for five touchdowns, with no interceptions and a 106.4 passer rating.

For the first time since Gibbs returned, the Redskins have scored 20 or more points in four consecutive games.

“Todd has just been a great performer,” Gibbs said. “He’s extremely tough. He’s oblivious to the rush. That toughness carries over to our team.”

Well versed in Saunders’ system, Collins has targeted his playmakers — Moss has 12 catches and two touchdowns in the last two games — and that downfield threat has opened things up for Portis.

An unrestricted free agent after the season, Collins makes his first playoff start today.

“There was no guarantee that I was going to get another start, but I thought the odds had to be in my favor that at some point, I would get a chance,” he said. “I knew [if it came], it might be my last chance so that’s why I prepared, getting ready knowing this could be it.”

Fletcher: as advertised

From the moment Fletcher arrived at Redskin Park, the unspoken request was to organize the middle of the field and be the vocal leader of the back seven.

Up front, Phillip Daniels and Cornelius Griffin were established leaders. But the rest of the lineup featured young players like Taylor, LaRon Landry, Carlos Rogers and Rocky McIntosh.

Fletcher has delivered. He started every game, made a team-high 129 tackles and posted four takeaways.

“He’s done what we expected him to do,” Williams said. “I think London’s ‘chip on the shoulder, prove the world wrong,’ attitude has always been why he plays at a high level and can continue to play at a high level.

Off the field, Gibbs has hailed him as a strong voice regardless of the circumstances. After Taylor’s death, those young defensive players most impacted — Landry, Doughty, McIntosh — drifted toward Fletcher.

“The two most important words that begin with ‘a’ for a pro football player is accountability and availability,” Williams said. “He’s both with a capital ‘A.’ ”

Williams: rebound year

Just to review the Redskins’ defense last year: 31st in yards, 27th in rushing, 26th on third down, 27th in points allowed and last in yards a completion, sacks and interceptions.

It was clearly a look-in-the-mirror year for Williams, whose modus operandi had been pressuring the passer. Thing was, the Redskins’ personnel didn’t fit that system. So Williams and his staff started over.

Salary cap limitations prevented an overhaul, but the team signed Fletcher and drafted Landry. Most of all, the Redskins scaled down their system, hoping simple would equal success. It has.

“There are times for all of us where we have to be able to say, ‘Hey, it’s time for a change,’ or ‘What is best for this group of guys?’ ” Williams said. “We reduced an awful lot of what they had to think about and tried to highlight the big playmakers.”

The Redskins moved up to eighth in yards, fourth in rushing, sixth in yards a completion, sixth on third down, 11th in points, 27th in sacks and 13th in interceptions.

The defense has improved with a less aggressive game plan that during one stretch this season saw them blitz once over a span of several games.

“[Williams] should get 90 percent of the credit,” Daniels said. “Players make plays, but coaches have to put you in situations to make plays. He changed our defense. He simplified a lot of things and that helped us stay focused on playing hard and physical instead of worrying about where we were going to line up. He’s calling things to our strengths.”

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