- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 23, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

We’re only two games into the NFL season and Washington has yet to venture away from FedEx Field.

Seven-eighths of the schedule remains, including matchups against squads much more formidable than St. Louis and Miami.

Also, you might recall Washington getting off to an identical start in 2014 — losing the opener and winning in Week 2 — and at 4-12, that season didn’t end well.

No one with a bit of sense is going overboard entering Thursday’s game against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium. For all we know, the final record could be 6-10, a popular prediction among observers.

But, at this early juncture, there are a number of things to feel good about — especially the feel itself.

The business-as-usual haze that hung over the franchise just three weeks ago is being replaced by fresh air. The stench of 25 losses the last two seasons is fading as we begin to catch whiffs of what’s cooking. The incessant buzz about soap-opera storylines and off-the-field drama is being drowned out by talk of a sound offense and stingy defense.

Cultures don’t change in a flash, and Washington has experienced a polar night for most of the century.

But there’s a feeling that dawn is near in Ashburn.

General manager Scot McCloughan has brought light and a bucket of soapy water. He is scrubbing the roster of decaying parts and installing hand-picked fixtures. Positions that were functioning adequately are being reinforced with spare parts for depth. Players’ standing under the previous regime has been rendered inconsequential, giving everyone a heightened sense of accountability.

McCloughan inherited coach Jay Gruden, who undoubtedly feels pressure to impress the new boss. Their first victory together wasn’t on Sunday but on Aug. 31, when they cut the cord on Robert Griffin III and went with Kirk Cousins as the starting quarterback.

The move gave them credibility in the locker room and around the league. It also shifted focus from the game’s most important position, giving the team and 21 other starters a better chance to flourish.

And it’s working.

A furious Giants team that arguably should be 2-0 will provide a stern test. Washington has struggled mightily against New York the last three seasons (1-5) and failed miserably on Thursday night last year when the visiting Giants posted a 45-14 rout.

But losing against the Giants for the fifth consecutive time wouldn’t alter the atmosphere drastically in Washington. (OK, maybe it would if Cousins implodes in primetime like last season, when New York intercepted four of his passes in the second half.)

Short of a totally disastrous performance, the team has shown enough encouraging signs to withstand a road loss against a desperate division foe on a short week. Washington is forging the type of an identity — tough, physical, hard-nosed — that can take a punch and come back swinging.

We saw that against St. Louis, when the Rams opened the second half with a field goal and a touchdown to close within 17-10. Washington responded with a lengthy, run-heavy touchdown drive that challenged the Rams’ manhood.

“Momentum was starting to shift maybe, and you could see people starting to have a little doubt maybe,” Gruden said afterward. “But the veteran guys led the way, we kept our heads about us and found a way to get the victory. It was a great win because everybody had their hand in it.”

That type of commentary resembles a foreign language around here. We’re much more accustomed to remarks like those from Giants coach Tom Coughlin, talking about morale after tough losses.

“Well, you’ve just got to go to work,” he told reporters Tuesday. “You’ve got to be encouraging and you’ve got to be someone who directs your guys to there’s no feeling sorry for yourself. We’re the reason we put ourselves in this position, so we’ve got another game coming up and we’ve got to believe in our work ethic and our process and that’s where our strength needs to come from.”

The Giants have won two Super Bowls the last eight seasons while espousing that philosophy.

Washington has spouted similar sentiments but in winning offseasons and off the field.

McCloughan is a long way from molding this franchise into a model that resembles previous employers such as Seattle, San Francisco and Green Bay, but two games into the season, you see the foundation being laid.

Star left tackle Trent Williams said this is a new team with a new attitude. He says that every year.

This season feels different, though.

From the revamped offensive line with noted coach Bill Callahan, to the restocked defensive line and first-year coordinator Joe Barry, Washington is building from the ground up instead of disintegrating from the top down.

A half-dozen wins still might be the max this year, but along with room to improve, that finish could offer a nice change of view.

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