Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

Redskins’ turnaround happened at a glacial pace — and seemingly overnight

The Washington Redskins are back. You wait 20 years. Then in less than a month, from Nov. 18 to Dec. 16, it happens. The Redskins aren’t back in any Super Bowl. That’s in the distance. But they are back at the top of the NFC East, where they’ve finished only once since 1991. That’s in our faces.

If you try too hard to see the future, you can miss the present. It’s not just that the Redskins have huge upgrades at the most important positions in the sport. The Eagles have disintegrated. Dallas defines mediocre: 22-24 and outscored the past three seasons. The Giants lost, 34-0, on Sunday and needed a last-minute miracle on Oct. 21 to avoid losing their fourth in a row to the Redskins.

Video

The Washington Redskins backup QB Kirk Cousins leads the team to their fifth straight win in a row to put them on top of the NFC East igniting playoffs hopes in the Washington region.

The Washington Redskins backup QB Kirk Cousins leads the team to their fifth straight win in a row to put them on top of the NFC East igniting playoffs hopes in the Washington region.

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The NFC East has changed, and it’s probably not going to change back soon. The Redskins need to close with victories over the Eagles and Cowboys to be sure of a division crown. Decades of disappointment put their fans in a self-protective fetal position. But it’s not warranted. Not anymore.

After five straight victories, including a sweep of their division, a win over the Ravens and a 329-yard starting debut by rookie backup quarterback Kirk Cousins, the Redskins have assembled most of the hardest pieces of the NFL puzzle — not all of them, but many. And it coalesced in a 30-day blink.

In one draft, they got a franchise quarterback in Robert Griffin III, second in the NFL in passer rating and, in the sixth round of the draft, also stole a franchise running back in Alfred Morris, third in the league in rushing (1,322 yards). If there is such a thing, they probably got a franchise backup quarterback, too, in Cousins. He’s tradeable, keepable and adoreable.

Then they picked up a rookie kicker, Kai Forbath, who has made all 15 field goals he has atempted and may solve that perennial problem. And, despite being whacked with an $18 million salary cap penalty, they acquired a feature wide receiver, Pierre Garcon, who was hurt a month ago but sure isn’t now. Garcon’s not a great, but with 34 catches for 498 in eight starts (half a season), he’s good enough.

One month ago, we didn’t know any of that, except for RGIII’s huge talent. Morris, who’s also third in the league in carries, could have run out of gas. The league could have adjusted to Griffin. Instead, he came back from the bye week and has thrown 10 touchdown passes to one interception.

Cousins might’ve fizzled if forced into duty. Even Mike Shanahan, who spotted him in the fourth round, can’t know for sure until true game speed arrives. Now, he has salvaged an overtime win and hung 38 on the Browns.

The Redskins haven’t won their division in this century. Now, they control their destiny. That’s part of why we love sports. We know just enough to think we know a lot. Then, we learn different. We feel like children: refreshed, surprised, open to possibility and full of wonder.

Cousins is a perfect example. In his first start, he set a Redskins rookie record for passing yardage (329) — breaking a mark (323) Griffin set in September. That’s just magnificently ridiculous — not that Cousins is good enough to do it, but that he does it by just enough, all the tumblers clicking into place for maximum delicious silliness. How will Cousins ever match up to RGIII, we ask? Oh, 329. Where else can being so wrong feel so good?

Because the NFL fulcrum is always turnovers, the league is built to shock us. The Redskins’ plus-13 turnover ratio, fourth-best in the league, can be partly luck, yet also translate into extra wins. Nonetheless, the basic change in the Redskins probably goes deeper than a fluky temporary hot streak.

Those four rookies — Griffin, Morris, Forbath and Cousins — are catalysts. But there’s more. On Nov. 18, if you asked, “Has the game passed Shanahan by,” you had a reasonable water-cooler question. Not anymore. Now, we’re about three wins away from hanging a “Genius at Work” sign on his neck. It’s been said: “Results are the teachers of fools.” What else have we got?

Now, if you say that Shanahan’s son Kyle might be the Redskins head coach someday, that is if he hasn’t been hired away by some other team, you’re not crazy. You’re just paying attention. Griffin and Cousins have won with two very different versions of the same offense in consecutive weeks.

Of course a five-game winning streak will temporarily distort all conclusions. The Redskins have beaten “just” four winning teams. But they’ve barely had a gift victory all year. The Eagles (4-10) are the only team they’ve played that has less than five wins.

The Redskins’ pass defense, 30th in yardage allowed, is enough to lose any game or, in the playoffs, end a season all by itself. But, that (big) weakness aside, they have some key pieces. Ryan Kerrigan is a disruptive outside linebacker. Brian Orakpo presumably will be back next year on the other edge. Isolate on Trent Williams, or watch any game of his on video: He has, apparently, matured and is now a formidable left tackle. Fred Davis should be back at tight end next year. And the offensive line can boast that it leads the NFL in rushing yardage.

Bad news bangs on the front door. Good news only taps on the back window. How many anticipated the swiftness with which the losing Capitals and Nationals would gain the best regular season records in their sports? But the Caps made the jump in a span of two seasons and the Nats did it in one.

These are the good days. No, nobody said, “Great days are here.” But, finally, we can wonder if they might be arriving. It’s a shock, but the best kind. Exactly a month ago, the Redskins coach himself said he would use the rest of the season to “evaluate” players. He meant . . . whatever he meant.

But he didn’t mean, “We’re going to win the next five games, 155-113.”

The Redskins are back — atop the NFC East, in a three-way tie, but with control of their destiny by the tiniest of tiebreaker margins. More important, their future looks better than Philadelphia or Dallas and roughly as good as the Giants. Silly nicknames such as RGIII and Captain Kirk are in the air.

That’s ridiculous. That’s exhilarating. That’s sports, where a bitter 20-year wait can be rewarded in one sweet month.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
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