ASHBURN — The languishing feels longer. The last two Decembers have been anchored in misery for the Washington Redskins, but the malaise feels more extended than that. A sort of melancholy time warp.
There was nothing football-related to celebrate when the last two Redskins seasons closed. Last season, the Redskins were 4-11 before Christmas. New coach Jay Gruden’s ability was being questioned. What quarterback Robert Griffin III had turned into was being wondered about. At least that season brought the could-be-worse spirit along with the end of the year. The bruising of 2013 was more severe. The Redskins won only three games, none in the second half.
On Saturday, the Redskins play the Philadelphia Eagles in a different December state. They have as many wins as losses, toting a 7-7 record north with a chance to win the NFC East outright for the first time since Griffin’s starburst season in 2012. The locker room was filled with gifts and laughter on Thursday.
The Redskins being on the cusp of a home playoff game as a division champion was not predicted. Usually, a punchline needs more time to become unfunny. Washington had hired general manager Scot McCloughan, known as a personnel-gathering savant who grappled with personal challenges. The team drafted an offensive lineman with its first pick. It was a head-turning, agreeable decision for an organization often more attracted to shine than concrete.
No matter. The Redskins were projected to have another moribund season. The slights, though, did not make it past Gruden. He rounded them up, then relayed him to his team. Motivation is welcome, no matter its state.
“Football is hard enough as it is,” Gruden said. “It’s a grind, obviously, and there’s a lot of doubters and a lot of haters that really had a lot of negative things to say about this franchise before the season about this team, and you should take it personally. This is their jobs. This is what they are paid to do. We have a lot of pride in this locker room, and for people to give us no respect whatsoever is insulting and it is a motivational tool. I’d be stupid not to use that, in my opinion — to an extent, obviously.
“But to challenge these guys and let them know that, ‘Hey, this is where we are, this is where we need to get, that’s a long way’ — I think they’ve accepted the challenge and have come a long way.”
In 2012, the Redskins surged to close the season. They moved from 3-6 to 10-6 and into the playoffs. Griffin was deified. This season has evolved more with heaving steps. In the past two weeks, they won consecutive games for the first time all year. That minirun pulled them to an even record, not exactly the stuff parade plans are made around. Yet, it’s enough to have the division title just beyond their fingertips.
“It’s a different type of thing,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “[In] 2012, we started out 3-6 and it was looking like it was going down the drain and we just hit our stride and won seven in a row. Here, we’ve had great games early, but we’ve had trouble finishing at times. I think we’re kind of starting to get the hang of it — knowing how to play with a lead, knowing how to go get a lead. And, it’s all coming together. It’s a little different vibe than 2012.”
Injuries, the marker of any NFL season, began to take hold by midseason. Yet, the Redskins were able to find solutions with plug-and-play help at inside linebacker and on the offensive line. Quarterback Kirk Cousins improved game by game. Tight end Jordan Reed replaced fragility with production, fulfilling all the what-if thoughts that had trailed him when he was so often hurt in prior seasons.
“I think 2012, Robert just took everybody by storm,” Williams said. “I mean now, we have guys who had to step up. Guys who probably, at the beginning of the season, weren’t even sure they were going to be on the team. Now they’re playing in pivotal roles in the playoff run.”
Leaving the field on Sunday, McCloughan, wearing a tan suit, jumped into the arms of defensive coordinator Joe Barry. Earlier in the game, he had helped up wide receiver Rashad Ross and shook hands with wide receiver Pierre Garcon following a touchdown reception. Separated from the field by a slight white line, he beamed watching the Redskins close out the Buffalo Bills. It was what he had hoped for before the season. McCloughan had aligned the rosters of the NFC East in the back corner of Redskins’ “war room,” pointed to them and emphasized how important the division title was to him.
The Redskins have two division games remaining. A win on Saturday brings a title and playoff plans. A loss causes the final game of the season, on the road against the Dallas Cowboys, to be pressure-filled and the ultimate decider. December, for now, means joy. That’s a change.