On Jan. 2, 1983, the Washington Redskins completed a strike-shortened NFL season by clobbering the St. Louis Cardinals, 28-0, a punctuation mark on what would become the franchise’s first Super Bowl-winning campaign. But it also began a string. The Redskins won the NFC East that season. They did so again the next two years, then again in 1987, and once more in 1991 — five division titles in 10 seasons, a decade of brilliance that made championships feel as regular as elections in Washington. In the 20 seasons since that run ended, the Redskins have won but one division championship, in 1999. Whatever the reasons — a coaching carousel, instability at quarterback, a sign-the-flashy-free agent philosophy — the crux of the Redskins’ struggles, and the disparity between the two periods, have been on display in games like Sunday’s at FedEx Field against the Philadelphia Eagles, a divisional opponent. “The rivalries, they’re probably between the fans,” said Brad Johnson, the last quarterback to win a division title in Washington. “But those games, they mean so much to your season.”
Players and coaches often refer to the NFL as a grind, with no one game more important than the next. “I think our football team understands that it’s a 16-game season,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said last week, a bland-but-typical assessment echoed in nearly every locker room nearly every week.
But the disparity between the Redskins from the glory days and the Redskins from the recent past would indicate that some games might be more important than others, because the differences can be seen clearly in games against NFC East opponents. During the best decade in franchise history, the Redskins won nearly two of every three of those games. In the 11 seasons since their last division championship, they’ve won barely one of three NFC East games, and even contending for the title has been rare.
“The sense for me of what a division title would be, and the sense for me of what a great playoff team would be, comes from guys around here that have done it,” said Redskins tight end Chris Cooley, in his eighth season here. “It comes from talking to Joe Theismann, comes from talking to guys like Gary Clark. Joe Gibbs was a part of it. I’m aware, I guess, what it could be like, but I just don’t know what it will feel like.”
It is only October, and a full three-quarters of the schedule remains ahead. But Sunday’s game against the Eagles — a star-studded bunch that, to date, is the NFL’s biggest disappointment — is a demarcation point of sorts. The Redskins, at 3-1, sit alone atop the NFC East, which they’ll admit to “kinda cool,” said defensive lineman Barry Cofield, “especially when you’re picked to finish dead last.”
A victory Sunday would provide further distance from Philadelphia and solidify an unexpected hold on first deeper into any season since 1999.
The Eagles, who have won six NFC East championships since the Redskins last won one, are already facing an essential game. In the nine years since the NFL expanded to a format of eight divisions with four teams apiece, only three teams have started 1-4 — Philadelphia’s current state — and rebounded to win their division. None of those teams — the New York Jets and Tennessee Titans in 2002 and the Green Bay Packers in 2004 — lost their sixth game.
“It’s undoubtedly a must-win for the Eagles,” Cooley said.
But if the Redskins are to change their recent fortunes and contend in the NFC East again over the final two months, it could be nearly as important for them. In the past 11 years, Washington has posted a winning record against NFC East opponents — the Eagles, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys — just once. That season, 2005, the Redskins ripped off five straight wins to end the regular season and reach the playoffs as a wild card under Gibbs, the three-time Super Bowl-winning coach who was in the second year of his second stint with Washington.
In what became the Redskins’ only 10-win season since the 1999 NFC East title, the last three of those victories came over the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles. It’s not coincidental that, in their best year of the past decade, the Redskins went 5-1 against divisional opponents. Indeed, it’s virtually impossible to win any division without beating the most familiar foes. Since 2002, when the NFL established its current alignment, the league has crowned 72 division champions. Only three of them won that title without a winning record in their six intra-division games.
All of that makes sense to the current Redskins, only a handful of whom have won division titles. Fullback Mike Sellers is the only remainder from the 1999 Washington team; any other champions won those titles elsewhere.
“Our team was probably a lot like this one,” said Johnson, who went to the Pro Bowl following the 1999 season. “We probably had more talent than people knew about, and a lot of guys had really never experienced any playoff time, any playoff runs. It was really fun.”
These Redskins aren’t drawing such comparisons yet. “It’s just the fifth game of the season,” defensive captain London Fletcher said. But those who have won division titles can identify the feeling on those teams and compare it to the one that’s developing within the Redskins’ Ashburn training facility.
“As a coach, and even as a player, I think you get a feeling that good things are happening,” said defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, who won division titles as a player in Buffalo, an assistant in Pittsburgh and a head coach in New Orleans. “It’s kind of a feeling within the organization. Guys work harder. Guys have fun being around one another. Guys enjoy going out to practice, and guys like being in the meeting rooms. I would say it’s night and day from last year to this year with this football team.”
Shanahan was hired less than two years ago to put the franchise in exactly this position, and he has emphasized the importance of divisional games both publicly and to his team. He won three AFC West championships during his 14-year tenure as head coach in Denver, when the only time he had a losing record within his division was in 1995, his first season. His overall winning percentage with the Broncos: .616. His winning percentage against divisional foes in that time: .633.
With the Redskins, though, he is just 3-5 against the NFC East, including a season-opening win this year against the Giants and a Week 3 loss at Dallas. He, like everyone in the locker room but Sellers, hasn’t felt what it would be like during a true run to a divisional championship in Washington.
“We’ve got a lot of tradition here,” Shanahan said. “The thing that I enjoy about the fans is that they want stability, they want character.”
They want, too, the way it used to be: When the Eagles or the Cowboys or the Giants came to town, and the Redskins were favored, on their way to the NFC East crown. Those days have been gone for decades. Sunday could help determine how soon they’ll return.