“When you lose a game like [this], now you’re playing to see who, obviously, is going to be on your football team for years to come,” Shanahan said, in comments that would be scrutinized, dissected, debated, criticized, defended and backed away from in the days and weeks that followed.
“Now we’ve got a chance to evaluate players and see where we’re at,” he continued. “Obviously, we’re not out of [the playoff race] statistically, but now we find out what type of character we’ve got, and how guys keep on fighting through the rest of the season.”
In a sense, this remarkable Redskins season can be separated into two parts: everything that occurred up to that moment, and everything that has occurred since. The parts are so incongruous as to defy the notion that they could have been produced by the same team.
The Redskins were 3-6 and in last place in the NFC East when Shanahan made those comments, their season on the verge of unraveling. Ahead of them was a bye week, followed by what appeared to be a slow winter’s slog toward irrelevancy, with all its attendant discontent and pointed questions about the franchise’s direction under Shanahan’s rule.
But now, following five straight victories, the Redskins are 8-6, tied for first place and could clinch a playoff spot Sunday when they travel to Philadelphia to play the Eagles in the season’s penultimate game. Win Sunday and again next Sunday at home against Dallas and they will win their division, which means the Redskins, on Jan. 5 or 6, would host the franchise’s first home playoff game in 13 years. Just three teams in NFL history have made the playoffs after being 3-6, none since 1996.
The Redskins made no drastic changes between the Carolina game and the Philadelphia game that followed two weeks later. And yet, something had changed — something imperceptible perhaps, but fundamental. Somewhere amid the controversy stirred up by Shanahan’s comments, the escape provided by the bye week, and the soul-searching that needed to take place on an individual basis, the Redskins discovered their missing ingredient.
And even if they can’t (or won’t) define what exactly that ingredient is, they know it was missing before, but is present now.
If you want to pinpoint the instant the molecular change occurred — the precise line of demarcation between the two disparate segments of the Redskins’ season — you might look to the moment Robert Griffin III, the Redskins’ rookie quarterback, praised for his dynamic play and his preternatural poise before the cameras, climbed behind the same lectern that Shanahan had vacated minutes earlier and sounded a starkly different tone, one of determination and personal responsibility.