- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 15, 2011

While the Washington Redskins were on their bye-week break last weekend, scattered across the country enjoying mothers’ home cooking, playing rounds of golf and spending time with friends and family, they were aware of how the NFC East division landscape shifted further in their favor.

The New York Giants, a double-digit favorite at home against Seattle, lost. The Philadelphia Eagles, a three-point favorite with their star-studded roster, lost to Buffalo. Without so much as making one tackle or running 1 yard, the 3-1 Redskins took over sole possession of first place.

Now, Washington leads New York by a half game entering Sunday afternoon’s matchup against the Eagles at FedEx Field. The Redskins‘ certainly can’t win the division this early, but how they respond to Sunday’s opportunity to bury the preseason favorite will teach us about what they truly are capable of.

“[The Eagles game] was going to be important anyway, but now I think it has really opened our eyes to the fact that this is real,” left guard Kory Lichtensteiger said. “It’s a real possibility for us to make some noise this year. It starts with the Eagles this week.”

First place and division titles were a common subject of interviews at Redskins Park this week. It’s preposterous, really. Washington has three-quarters of its season remaining. “I don’t even think about first place,” coach Mike Shanahan said. “That’s the furthest thing from my mind.”

Then again, the Redskins‘ organization and fan base are so starved for success after three consecutive last-place finishes and a division-title drought that dates to 1999. The optimism and forward thinking are symptoms, perhaps just human nature.

“When you’re picked to finish last and at this point you’re sitting in first, it’s kind of cool,” first-year Redskin Barry Cofield said. “It gives you something to continue to build on.”

With his next breath, though, Cofield provided a reality check. Behind his words was the experience of a Super Bowl championship with the Giants in 2007. New York started 0-2 that year.

“Obviously, it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish,” he said. “I’ll be preaching that to these guys. The one year I did finish strong, I got a ring to show for it. That’s the key. Being focused week to week is incredibly important.”

Fourteen players on the Redskins‘ 53-man roster learned that lesson from the other perspective in 2008. They were around for the team’s 6-2 start under first-year head coach Jim Zorn.

Coincidentally, the Redskins improved to 4-1 that season by beating Philadelphia. They hip-hip-hoorayed themselves into the national spotlight. Zorn was the toast of the town.

But a lot happens over the course of a 16-game season. Opponents have more game film to analyze. Injuries mount. And in 2008, the Redskins fizzled over the final two months. The end result: last place at 8-8.

Tight end Chris Cooley experienced the tantalizing buzz created by that hot start, but, now in his eighth season in Washington, he never has realized the ecstasy experienced by those who played during the franchise’s glory years in the 1980s.

“The sense for me of what a division title would be and the sense for me of what a great playoff team would be comes from guys around here that have done it,” he said. “It comes from talking to Joe Theismann and guys like Gary Clark. Joe Gibbs was a part of it.”

Beating Philadelphia on Sunday won’t guarantee that Cooley will experience it for himself. Not even close. That the Redskins lost their only divisional road game so far is only Exhibit A that talk of playoffs and a division title is premature.

Winning Sunday, however, is a necessary step. A true contender beats a reeling 1-4 rival on its home field. The Redskins are aware of the opportunity and what it might mean in a few more weeks.

“I’ve been here long enough that I’m a fan and I know how the people here feel,” Cooley said. “We want to make them happy. We want to win football games. I couldn’t imagine anything better as a player than to feel the excitement that we would if we won some more.”

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