Washington Redskins beat New York Giants, showing newfound confidence

September 11, 2011

The Washington Redskins’ new quarterback looked more than competent, throwing a pair of touchdowns. Their shiny new first-round draft pick not only batted an opponent’s pass into the air, but caught it himself and stumbled in for a score. The defense came up with four sacks. The backup tight end caught more than 100 yards in passes. And a key division rival fell.

Draw up Mike Shanahan’s second season opener as the Redskins’ coach, and it couldn’t have looked much better than what transpired Sunday at FedEx Field. Washington beat the New York Giants, 28-14, receiving contributions from sources familiar and not. They all seemed to bring an element, to the crowd of 80,121 and the team itself, that has been scarce here for much of the past decade: confidence.

“As I told our team: I’ve got a lot of belief in our football team,” Shanahan said afterward. “But that’s one win. . . . It’s a long season, but you’ve got to believe in yourself. I think our players will believe in themselves.”

For one day, at least, that belief didn’t seem misplaced, even for a franchise that has but two playoff appearances since 1999. Quarterback Rex Grossman, taking over as a full-time starter for the first time in four years, threw for 305 yards. Ryan Kerrigan, the rookie linebacker who’s projected to be a mainstay in Washington for years, broke a 14-14 tie by delicately tipping an Eli Manning pass to himself, then brutishly lumbering home for the touchdown. Brian Orakpo, perhaps the Redskins’ best player, blocked a New York field goal attempt. And the Redskins — who hadn’t beaten the Giants since 2007, and had lost nine of their last 10 meetings against New York — looked, for once, like the superior team.

“We can still be better,” said Redskins tight end Fred Davis, who set a career high with 105 yards receiving. “That’s the funny thing.”

Thus, a summer of uncertainty — one that began with the NFL’s lockout of its players and a slew of questions about how the Redskins might improve — is officially over, and Shanahan’s second season is off to a promising start.

A year ago, Shanahan debuted with a prime-time victory over the Dallas Cowboys. But the season then spun nearly out of control, with two of the team’s most prominent players — defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth and quarterback Donovan McNabb — developing into enormous distractions. Haynesworth was suspended for the final four games of the season, McNabb benched for the final three, and the Redskins won just six of 16 games.

McNabb and Haynesworth were traded in the days leading up to preseason workouts, and a more professional, businesslike feel overtook the Redskins’ Ashburn training facility. The one place widespread predictions of another brutal season were roundly ignored was Redskins Park.

“It’s just a feeling that we’re going to be a very good football team,” veteran tight end Chris Cooley said.

Still, on Sunday, Grossman opened his season by failing to complete any of his first four passes. The Giants jumped out to a 7-0 lead, and that confidence seemed misplaced. The crowd — which had chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!” during pregame ceremonies marking the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks — seemed to recoil. So many seasons had started in such a fashion. Why would this be different?

“This is a different team,” Cooley said.

So Grossman, and the Redskins, recovered. By the second quarter, when Grossman found wide receiver Anthony Armstrong near the goal line — and he briefly thought Armstrong had scored — he was so excited he ran to the end zone and leapt over the 5-foot-11 Armstrong, spreading his legs to clear his helmet.

“Some situations are more emotional than others,” Grossman said, and he went on to complete 21 of 34 passes. Kerrigan’s third-quarter touchdown, as he said, “turned the momentum.” As his teammates piled on him in the end zone, the stadium thumped with, of all things, optimism.

And when Grossman found wide receiver Jabar Gaffney on a short touchdown pass with just more than five minutes remaining in the game — and the Redskins essentially clinched victory — the crowd did what it does after every score at FedEx Field. Prompted by the massive video monitors over each end zone and the team’s marching band, it burst into a version of “Hail to the Redskins.”

But just before 7 p.m. on this September Sunday evening, the words thundered through the stadium, unlike in recent years. More people seemed to be singing, and singing louder. The season is but one week old, and the despair of years’ past, the dire predictions for this season, have already been replaced by something strange: hope. It is, as Shanahan said, one win. But this team clearly believes it will be one of many.

“I feel like for the years that we’ve been here, we’ve been itching,” veteran wide receiver Santana Moss said. “We’ve been itching and scratching and haven’t got to that point. But I feel like right now, we have one of the best teams — as far as the Redskins — have ever had. . . . What better time to do it than now?”

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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