In early November, the narrative surrounding the Washington Redskins included, in no particular order, firing defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, cutting every single player on defense, changing the team’s offense to keep star quarterback Robert Griffin III from taking hits on option plays and placing head coach Mike Shanahan and his son, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, on the hot seat for handling their prized rookie so carelessly.
Redskins nation is celebrating the holiday season with a four-game winning streak and visions of playoff games dancing in their heads. Suddenly, it’s acceptable for everyone in Ashburn to keep their jobs.
That’s what happens when you beat each of your division foes in consecutive weeks. That’s what happen when you win the much-hyped Battle of the Beltways in a dramatic, come-from-behind fashion. Most importantly, that’s what happen when you improve to 7-6 and get within only one game of the playoffs (either by wild card or outright division title).
Anyone who saw this coming after the team’s 3-6 start, please raise your hand.
Didn’t think so.
Which brings me to the point of this column. Regardless of whether the Redskins actually qualify for the playoffs, this season has revealed a dramatic turn for the better in Ashburn. This team is building through the draft, developing their own players, making sound decisions in free agency and creating a culture conducive to winning. They’re far from perfect, but we can no longer question whether they’re better than they were before the current regime was put in place.
Consider Sunday’s coming out party for the rookie class of 2012 against the Ravens. Can you remember a time when a Redskins draft class looked so good right away? The 1st round pick – RG3 – again showed why he’s the most dynamic player in the NFL today and the front-runner for offensive rookie of the year.
The 6th round pick – Alfred Morris – ran for 122 yards in the game. The 4th round pick – Kirk Cousins – probably surpassed Drew Storen as the best closer in town after scoring the touchdown and ensuing two-point conversion to force overtime. You know Cousins, right? The “waste” of a 4th-round pick? Pretty sure whatever backup offensive lineman or cornerback fans wanted instead of Cousins wasn’t going to account for eight points with the game on the line.
And in the extra session, rookie corner Richard Crawford made the most of his chance to return punts by breaking off a 64-yard return to set up the game winning field goal. Not bad for a 7th round pick.
Oh, and that game-winning kick? It came off the foot of first-year kicker Kai Forbath, who is a perfect 14-for-14 on field goals this season.
Pre-Shanahan, I can’t remember a time in the Snyder era the ‘Skins had four rookies active on game day, let alone play well in one game.
That said, the Redskins will need to draft equally as well, if not better, in the coming seasons if they’re going to take the next step and become an annual playoff contender. The trade up for RG3 will leave the ‘Skins without first round picks in 2013 and 2014, so late round gems like Morris will be necessary, especially given that the team will have trouble spending much in free agency with one more year of cap penalties to atone for.
But the Redskins brain trust of Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen has earned some brownie points this season. They’ve not only put together a pretty good team, but a likeable team. Between RG3’s natural charisma and the incredibly humble Morris, the ‘Skins are no longer the team everyone loves to hate. In fact, the Redskins are suddenly a team with a rapidly expanding bandwagon.
Regardless of what happens in Cleveland, Philadelphia or at FedEx Field against Dallas, we know the arrow on this team is pointed up. The days of complaining about a lack of depth appear to be over. The Redskins have found a franchise quarterback and a workhorse running back through the draft this season, and appear to have secured a reliable kicker (Forbath), a playmaking wide receiver (Pierre Garcon) and solid in-the-box safety (Brandon Meriweather) in free agency. With some luck on the injury front – namely the healthy return of Meriweather, Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker next season – the ‘Skins could be a chic pick for the Super Bowl within the next couple years.