Redskins’ last-second win may have saved the season, and perhaps the Shanahan regime

September 30, 2012

Don’t sleep on this victory just because the Redskins beat a below-middling, transitional NFL team that came within inches of dealing them one of the most crushing losses of the Mike Shanahan era. Don’t play downRobert Griffin III’s endgame improvisation, which gave place kicker Billy Cundiff one last shot to show he deserves a salary beyond Monday.

Jobs were most likely saved Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A season’s outlook did an about-face in the final, frantic two minutes that Griffin needed to marshal his offense downfield so Cundiff could send the Redskins home in triumph instead of despair.

Everything could change after the unbeaten Atlanta Falcons come to FedEx Field on Sunday. We could be right back to wondering how far down the NFC food chain this team actually is. But Sunday, pitchforks and torches were lowered for an evening.

“If you look at the record tomorrow and it says 1-3, that’s a dagger — a dagger in your chest,” wide receiver Santana Moss said in a more-than-relieved visiting locker room at Raymond James Stadium.

Chris Wilson, the reserve linebacker, just shook his head at the possibility. “It’s hard to come back from 1-3. To be even at 2-2, you still feel like you’re in the playoff race this early – you don’t feel like you can’t go any lower.”

This was larger than merely pulling out a 24-22 victory in Week 4 on the road. This was a pendulum-swinging moment early in the season, the difference between a spark of momentum heading home against the Falcons and, “What in the world is Mike Shanahan talking about when he says ‘culture change?’ ”

Really, there are only so many times you can say of a coaching staff, “The adults are in charge” until you realize 11 wins in two seasons and a 1-3 start to 2012 constitutes parental neglect in the NFL. At some point, the Redskins were going to have to see tangible results in the win-loss column if they were ever going to believe the franchise was heading in the direction they and their superiors kept saying it was.

And on one of those fine-line-in-sports days that can either catapult or crater an organization, the Redskins turned the car keys over to the Golden Child. Without a GPS — the electronic communication in Griffin’s helmet went out, leaving him with no direction from the sideline in the final two minutes — Griffin delivered his first signature comeback, finding his receivers, finding room to run, finding a sliver of daylight in the approaching darkness.

He bailed them all out: Cundiff, a clear bipartisan whose kicks went wide left, wide right but never down the middle until the end. The coach, who challenged a reception call that never looked close on the replay, costing the Redskins another key timeout late in the fourth quarter. DeAngelo Hall, who couldn’t cover a Ritz cracker in the fourth quarter, let alone Vincent Jackson. Jim Haslett’s defense, which was so strong early and so bad late. The play-calling of Kyle Shanahan, which never amounted to more than a field goal in the second half — a kick so badly needed by everyone on the roster.

“It’s really tough to maintain a job in this league when kickers miss four in a row,” Cundiff conceded afterward when asked if he thought he might be cut if he missed the eventual game-winner.

If Cundiff misses that kick from 41 yards, the field-goal kicker would have a “Will Kick for Food” sign around his neck Monday morning. Danny Smith, the special teams coach, might have to start penning a “Will Coach For Food” sign — summer contract extension notwithstanding.

Heads would have been called for, if not rolled. Shanahan would have rightly faced his toughest recriminations yet after the team that came out so inspired in the first half against the Buccaneers fell apart late again.

But, hey, the crew is 2-2. Life is livable again in Ashburn and beyond.

Now they look ahead. Now they talk of Griffin leading them back from the brink of 1-3, quoting cheesy sports movies.

“You try to rise to the occasion,” said Griffin, who completed all but nine of his 35 passes for 323 yards. “I think there’s a movie called ‘The Replacements,’ you know, they said, ‘Great players want their ball in their hands when it’s crunch time.’ Funny I just quoted that movie. But it’s also funny [laughing] that’s how it is, that’s how it really is. You want the ball in your hands. When something happens, you make it happen and that’s what they did.

Now they talk about the Falcons being a real measuring stick on Sunday at FedEx Field, where maybe an improved defense and an offense that pulled out a big one will feel much better about themselves.

“One and three,” said safety Reid Doughty, shaking his head. “I don’t even want to think about what that would have been like. We’re talking looking back at what we did wrong again all week instead of looking forward to improving and getting back above .500. It’s a monstrous difference, even at this point in the season.”

“We have a good group of guys that are working extremely hard together,” Shanahan said in his postgame news conference. It’s a standard line, from Gene Hackman on the big screen to Vince Lombardi in real life. It’s code for, “Whatever happens, we like our roster and what they represent.”

But in any long-term process of team building, of moving from chaos and losing to focus and winning, there have to be victories that ensure the message stays relevant. Because if players keep hearing about change but it never results in a better place in the standings, at some juncture they just won't believe the message any longer.

“It’s huge,” Griffin said. “It means a happy plane ride back. It means a great week of practice. Guys will be feeling good. We’re 2-2, we’re .500 through the first quarter of the season.”

For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.
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