These aren’t your old Redskins

Thomas Boswell
Columnist September 18, 2011

Just as they were about to turn into the old Redskins again on Sunday at FedEx Field — the kick-the-TV, I-swear-I’ll-never-root-for-these-bums-again (until next week) Redskins of far too many recent years — the script suddenly changed. Were those some kind of “new” Redskins out there?

It’s way too soon to know. One 22-21 win over Arizona, a team that won just five games last year, doesn’t prove too much. Winning at home when you’re a favorite is hardly a triumph on which to hang your helmet.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Besides, how’d the Redskins ever get eight points behind those guys in the fourth quarter anyway? Washington dominated in yardage, took fewer penalties and, except on a few key plays (the ones that create or deny points), seemed clearly the better team.

However, the way the Redskins won this game in the final minutes, not simply the fact that they won, may show the beginnings of culture change.

“We don’t feel great about the performance,” said linebacker London Fletcher, realizing that when you outgain your foes 455-324, you’re not supposed to win by the tiniest of margins.

“But we can feel great about our team. Every part contributed at the end when we had to have it.”

The offense drove 73 yards for an 18-yard, fourth-and-three touchdown pass from quarterback Rex Grossman to Santana Moss. They didn’t make the two-point conversion to tie the game at 21. But then Fletcher’s defense held the Cardinals to three-and-out.

“Blitz, blitz, blitz — two of them ‘zero blitzes’ when we were sending seven, or even eight (pass rushers) depending on how they blocked us,” said Fletcher, grinning at the gambles called by defensive coordinator Jim Haslett.

Finally, the final 4 minutes 20 seconds played out like a Redskins’ script. Grossman led the fourth game-winning drive of his career — this one for 48-yards — to set up a 34-yard field goal by the man heretofore known as Graham (“Oh, No”) Gano.

“Everybody wanted to throw me under the bus after the first field goal (of the season) missed (from 39 yards against the Giants),” Gano said. “Everybody was hatin’ me for that. But I love (end-of-game) kicks. That’s the most fun. Because I know I can do it.”

This time he did, anyway, and, as a fine twist that had a “new Redskins” feeling about it, the Washington defense didn’t allow the Cardinals to mount a last-gasp drive, even though Arizona got the ball back with plenty of time for a winning drive with 1:45 to play.

On the very first Cards’ play, Byron Westbrook forced a fumble that was recovered by Reed Doughty. Suddenly, a Redskins team that has had terrible trouble “finishing games” or standing up to late-game adversity had suddenly done both within two weeks. They got the Giants down, then coldly put them away. And, after leading the Cards 10-7 at half, they let an apparently inferior team get into a winning position, but then rallied back.

This game probably had one true key play, one fulcrum: that fourth-and-three pass from Grossman to Moss that put the Redskins back in the game. Grossman, known as a gunslinger — sometimes to his detriment — in his Bears days, rolled right and had a receiver wide open for a short safe gain and an easy first down. Or he could put the ball in the air perhaps 35 yards to Moss heading to the back flag of the end zone.

“Rex read his progression,” said Coach Mike Shanahan, as if quarterbacks in such situations are superior system robots who do as told, no feelings at all. Grossman has feelings. Believe it. After all the grief he’s taken in his career?

“If I’d have missed it, it would have been interesting,” said Grossman, with a wry twist of his mouth.

Oh, interesting to say the least. Rex had already had one of his famous “bad decisions,” throwing off-balance into traffic for a first-quarter interception at the Cards’ six-yard line. And Rex had been unlucky, too; he was intercepted later on a tipped pass.

But if Rex has one thing it’s guts. “It’s hard to pass up a touchdown,” he said. So, he nixed the easy first down and nailed the six-pointer.

This game showed the Redskins resilience and mutual confidence, despite a roster without many big names. “These are the games that define your season,” said running back Tim Hightower, who rushed for 96 of the Redskins’ 172 net yards on the ground and caught a 10-yard pass, too. “It’s the way you win that sticks with you. You come out of it thinking that you’ve made the plays at the big times and haven’t made the [big] mistakes. You put that in your back pocket and say, ‘We dealt with adversity and won.’ ”

There’s a flip side to all that, however. The “adversity” came against an Arizona team that, playing in a weak division, was outscored by 145 points last year. Washington barely beat a bad team on a day when the brain-numb Cardinals committed 10 penalties and seldom maximized their chances.

Other games on other fields against better teams will be a different matter, perhaps much different. And one of them may be next Monday night in Dallas against the Cowboys.

However, a team that entered this year with a 12-28 record since the middle of the ’08 season can’t be too choosy about the level of its improvement. Let it suffice that improvement, and plenty of it, is obvious.

The Shanahan system seems to fit Grossman extremely well. Sometimes, on crucial third-down plays, receivers are open by such huge margins that a Kyle Shanahan design or decision is more at work than any particular player.

“It’s a perfect mix of Kyle’s calls and great [individual] plays by receivers and going through my reads,” said Grossman, leaving out the part about him being a fine pure passer, when he has time and air space.

For the last three years, the Redskins could have waltzed into FedEx Field after being praised for a win over the Giants and, looking ahead to a meeting on national TV with the Cowboys, felt that they were entitled to beat a franchise like the Cardinals.

The old Redskins, after Cardinals’ wideout Larry Fitzgerald had disappeared in the distance and an eight-point deficit loomed in the fourth quarter, would have found a way to lose — at home as favorites before a stunned or even booing crowd.

These aren’t the “new” Redskins yet. That requires a great deal more evidence. But this was exactly the kind of game the Redskins have lost in the recent past, souring the whole taste of their season.

This time, they won by a point. Don’t ask too many questions. Just take it.

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