The other three NFC East teams might have celebrity quarterbacks and they may have started the season with high playoff expectations, but in the season’s opening act, it’s the Redskins who’ve quickly stolen the division spotlight. With a 2-0 record and sole possession of the NFC East lead, the Redskins have roared out of the starting gate to the surprise of many — but certainly not all.
“Nothing really has surprised me,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said of his team’s first two games.
On Sunday, the Redskins beat the Arizona Cardinals, 22-21, to achieve their best start since 2007. Later that night, Shanahan was having dinner with family, stealing occasional glances at the Atlanta Falcons’ dramatic win over the Philadelphia Eagles, which left Washington alone atop the division standings.
Though the Redskins haven’t had sole possession of first place since 2005, Shanahan knows it’s too early to draw many conclusions. He knows two wins guarantee nothing. And he knows the Redskins now must prepare for their toughest task to date, playing at Dallas next Monday night.
“I don’t think our players get overly excited that we’re 2-0, because they understand we have a big game Monday night against Dallas,” he said. “Things change very quickly. Our concentration will be Dallas. Not really concerned about our record.”
While a 2-0 start certainly hasn’t hurt the Redskins’ confidence on either side of the ball, history suggests it doesn’t reveal much about the future. Since the NFL expanded its schedule to 16 games in 1978, 249 teams have started the season with 2-0 records. Of those, 161 teams — 65 percent — went on to make the playoffs.
This season marks only the fourth time the Redskins have managed a 2-0 start since their 1991 Super Bowl team. Two of three previous times — in 2005 and 2007 — they reached the playoffs. Steve Spurrier’s team started 2-0 in 2003 but then lost 11 of its final 14 games.
Shanahan had his share of hot starts with the Denver Broncos. In 14 seasons as head coach there, his teams started 2-0 or better eight times. The Broncos missed the playoffs four of those seasons. His final Denver team, in 2008, started 3-0. By season’s end, not only were the Broncos out of the playoff race but Shanahan was out of a job.
So what does a 2-0 start mean for the Redskins?
“Just two games,” Shanahan said. “That’s about it.”
Shanahan knows that a win next Monday night will count as more than just another victory. The Cowboys are the Redskins’ second division opponent of the young season. With the Eagles and Giants both suffering early setbacks, the Redskins have shown indications they could contend for the division crown. A win next Monday — and the 2-0 division record that would come with it — would force even critics to concede that the Redskins could be in the hunt later in the season.
“I think everybody knows if you can win your division, everybody knows you’re guaranteed a home-field game [in the playoffs],” Shanahan said. “So [it’s] very important to win your division. That’s always your mind-set. You know how important division games are.”
Because their next game is on “Monday Night Football,” the Redskins will hold a slightly altered workweek. Players had Monday off, and they’ll report to Redskins Park on Wednesday to begin preparations for the Cowboys. They'll have an extra practice on Saturday before flying to Dallas the following afternoon.
While Washington coaches will try to make the most of the extra time, the Cowboys hope an extra day gives their players some time to heal. Dallas beat San Francisco, 27-24, in overtime Sunday but came out of the victory with more than a few bumps and bruises. Quarterback Tony Romo suffered a fractured rib on the third offensive play of the game, but eventually returned to spark the team’s comeback. Reports out of Dallas say that Romo also has a collapsed lung. The Cowboys also have a long list of other injured players, including wide receivers Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, cornerbacks Orlando Scandrick and Terence Newman, running back Felix Jones and center Phil Costa.
The Redskins have remained relatively healthy through two games and are hoping cornerback Josh Wilson, who suffered a back injury in the second half, will be able to play Monday.
After reviewing film of Sunday’s win over the Cardinals, Shanahan said he was pleased with his team’s resilience, the emergence of tight end Fred Davis, the play of running backs Tim Hightower and Roy Helu and the performance of his quarterback, Rex Grossman.
The Redskins will work this week on improving in the red zone, where they had only two touchdowns in seven trips. What they won’t do is spend a lot of time celebrating their 2-0 start.
“One thing we emphasize is just don’t get caught up in everything,” Shanahan said. “Just take it day by day. Come to work ready to go. I think our football players have been doing that.”