Lord knows he’s the biggest piece. But his absence because of a sprained knee revealed the subtler aspects of the job Shanahan has done; it’s not just Griffin carrying this team.
The receivers got as open for Cousins as they did for Griffin, without the Pistol formation. And it’s one thing to block for Griffin, another for the young offensive line to perform as it did for Cousins. Shanahan’s confidence in players such as Kory Lichtensteiger, at one time mystifying, now seems merited. We will know still more about Shanahan’s eye in the coming two weeks, with injuries to Tyler Polumbus and Will Montgomery. Shanahan has made a host of sixth- and seventh-round draft picks on whom he will count for “quality depth.” It may not be RGIII or Morris who wins him a coaching award in the end, but a Tom Compton, Josh LeRibeus, Adam Gettis.
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If Shanahan has a signature, it’s his faith in the young, seemingly undersized marginal, try-hard player, guys who have a hint of desperation, who play, as he puts it, “like every game is a playoff game.” Such as Rob Jackson, the seventh-rounder who was waived, released, signed to the practice squad and released again, but who kept coming back through work habit and willingness to be a special teams player, until he blossomed into a starting linebacker.
“We’ve got a lot of guys going the right direction,” Shanahan says. “It’s started to turn. We believe in each other and believe we’re going to win. Once you start winning those close games, you expect it.”
No matter how the next two games play out, we can already say that Shanahan has turned a dysfunctional wreck of a franchise, ravaged by years of incompetence, into a contender with a future. The Redskins, for the first time in a decade, are a desirable destination for a reason other than Daniel Snyder’s over-paying checkbook. After watching the elegant teaching job Shanahan has done this season, what agent won’t be happy to place a client in his hands? Right now there are free agents and draft prospects all across the country thinking, “I wonder if he can do that for me?”
For all that the Redskins have mortgaged themselves with cap problems, expenditures and lack of draft choices, Shanahan has done a very good job of what once seemed impossible: dragging them out of their Groundhog Day past and giving them a tomorrow.
For previous Sally Jenkins columns, go to washingtonpost.com/jenkins.