- The Washington Times - Monday, January 11, 2016

ASHBURN — Trent Williams grabbed the collection of jerseys he exchanged with opposing players and carried them out of his locker. The Washington Redskins‘ left tackle returned to the locker room and sat on a black leather couch as his teammates played cards, just like they have all season.

There was Matt Jones, the Redskins‘ rookie running back who perhaps is the future of the position if pending free agent Alfred Morris does not return. There was veteran nose tackle Terrance Knighton, signed this season on a one-year deal, who provided leadership and helped shaped the culture change that washed over a Redskins team that won just seven games in the previous two years. Quinton Dunbar, the rookie wide-receiver-turned-cornerback, added some playful commentary to the game.

Less than 24 hours after a 35-18 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the wild-card round of the playoffs on Sunday, others milled about the locker room and stuffed their belongings into clear garbage bags as they prepared for the offseason ahead.

Some players just hung out and autographed footballs for teammates or played ping pong in the equipment room. Others, such as defensive end Jason Hatcher and right tackle Morgan Moses, politely declined to comment about anything football-related.

While each players’ offseason plans differed — some less certain of their future than others — one thing was certain: Nobody was in a hurry to leave, which spoke volumes of the chemistry that was forged this season.

“It just sucks, man,” inside linebacker Will Compton said. “I didn’t even think about losing that game yesterday. The ride you go on with your teammates, the fun, the coming together that’s taking place.

“[There’s] not as much finger-pointing, not that there was a whole lot [last season], but you see guys take a lot of self-accountability. It’s great to see. We have a lot of good leadership. Players are taking it upon themselves to put it on our shoulders. Coaches do a good job putting it on theirs. That’s what you want, you want everybody taking accountability for yourself and that’s a great step towards creating a culture that you want. It’s been fun, it’s been a good ride.”

There were so many highlights to remember for a team that finished with a 9-7 regular-season record and won the NFC East after finishing last with a 4-12 record in 2014. Still, it hurt to come up short on Sunday.

“Each time it happens, it doesn’t feel any better,” Williams said of the playoff loss. “You don’t get used to it. I know we exceeded expectations from the outside world, but we still had far greater expectations for ourselves. We didn’t accomplish that, so it still kind of sucks. This season’s just one step in the right direction.”

There was a seismic shift in the rocky waters that flooded this organization the last two seasons. There was an infusion of leadership from offseason acquisitions such as Knighton, free safety Dashon Goldson and defensive end Ricky Jean Francois, who all brought valuable postseason experience to the Redskins. There was plenty of guidance from holdovers, too, such as Williams, veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall and nose tackle Kedric Golston, who have seen plenty of lows.

Sprinkle in a mix of off-the-street free agents, players such as cornerback Will Blackmon, running back Pierre Thomas, inside linebacker Mason Foster and tight end Alex Smith, and the Redskins were able to overcome having 15 players landing on injured reserve.

Coach Jay Gruden addressed the cold reality that the upcoming free agency period and draft will induce turnover on the roster that featured a diverse group of personalities. That said, Gruden could sense the turn the team made this season and was optimistic about the road ahead.

Those decisions get more difficult considering the rise of players such as Compton, who emerged as the team’s mike linebacker and has been lauded for his ability to direct the defense.

“We still have Trent Williams, who’s going to be here,” Gruden said. “D-Hall is going to be here. We have Kirk Cousins, who’s emerging as a leader. We’ve got guys.

“We’ll make that decision on all the veteran guys and the free agents who we are going to try to keep here at a later time, but, like I’ve said, the nucleus of players that we’re going to keep here, we feel excellent about moving forward. We can’t keep everybody, obviously. We’re going to lose some key players, some good leadership players. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the way it is in pro football.”

The one thing the Redskins won’t lose is the foundation they built this season, no matter how painful the final outcome may have been. The challenge now is to make sure they keep the momentum moving in the right direction.

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