By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 6, 2008
PHILADELPHIA, Oct. 5 -- The Washington Redskins ran from the chewed-up grass at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday afternoon, each player shouting his own message to the small clan of burgundy-and-gold supporters gathered around the tunnel to the visitors' locker room. They carried with them the satisfaction of a 23-17 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, the momentum of a four-game winning streak, burgeoning trust in a first-year head coach and the confidence that they can contend for a playoff berth.
"Take the underdog, baby!" yelled veteran lineman Randy Thomas. Defensive back Fred Smoot howled about the "Haters!" that doubted this squad. Finally, offensive lineman Chris Samuels located an Eagles fan, spread his massive arms wide, smiled and bellowed, "It ain't too late to be a Redskins fan!"
At this rate, act fast, because spaces are filling up. The victory over the Eagles, a game Washington absolutely dominated for the final three quarters, followed last week's road win over the Dallas Cowboys. It came because Washington did not alter its game plan nor its comportment despite an early 14-0 deficit. It came because running back Clinton Portis ground out 145 yards against a previously impenetrable Philadelphia run defense. It came because the Redskins again did not commit a turnover.
It came, too, because the Redskins made a crucial conversion on the game's final drive to prevent yet another opponent from getting the ball back with a chance to win, just as they did last week at Dallas, just as they did two weeks earlier against Arizona, just as they did when they started this streak with a victory over New Orleans. This one was by Portis, a brutal fourth-and-one surge on which he gained his final three yards with just more than two minutes remaining.
Those are the components that are beginning to define this team under Jim Zorn, the rookie who replaced Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs following last season. "The trust factor's there," said fullback Mike Sellers, and it was a word that carried throughout the Redskins locker room.
The other element that now accompanies this team: Possibility. Though they still sit behind the unbeaten New York Giants in the NFC East division, they are 4-1 for the first time since 1999. They are done with their road games against division rivals Philadelphia, Dallas and New York, who handed the Redskins their only loss, a distressing season opener that somehow seems long ago. Consider now the three weeks of the schedule that will carry the Redskins to the midway point: home against St. Louis and Cleveland and at Detroit, teams with a combined 1-11 record.
"Obviously, we put ourselves in a great spot right now," said tight end Chris Cooley, who scored the touchdown that put the Redskins ahead to stay. "Our biggest goal of this year was to win this division, which is a major accomplishment. Even in the spot we're in, at 4-1, to win this division is going to be extremely tough. The NFC East is wild right now."
The Redskins, though, are now in position to lead the discussion about which NFC East teams will remain relevant at year's end. Their three divisional rivals all must come to FedEx Field in the second half of the season. Two of them, Dallas and Philadelphia, will make those treks knowing the Redskins have beaten them once.
Not to take the edge off a satisfying month of football, the players said, but they are trying to be realists in the midst of euphoria.
"We can't get too far ahead," defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin said.
"Our possibilities are to get to 5-1," offensive lineman Jon Jansen said.
"Our job isn't done yet," wide receiver Santana Moss said.
Their four victories, as impressive as they appear, have come by five, seven, two and six points, nary a blowout among them. "The margin is so thin," offensive lineman Pete Kendall said.
Their own franchise shows that's so. Since their last Super Bowl appearance, which came following the 1991 season, the Redskins have started 4-1 twice. The 1999 season ended reasonably well, a 10-6 record and an eventual loss in the second round of the playoffs. But the 1996 team lost six of seven games in one stretch, finished 9-7 and missed the postseason. Thus, these Redskins vowed to ignore the vagaries of the upcoming schedule rather than embrace them.
"That is a trap that I hope we don't fall into," Kendall said. "Some people [in the media] were ready to throw dirt on us four weeks ago, and probably the very same people now are going to tell us what it is that we can do. The fact of the matter is, it doesn't matter what you say or what you think. It matters whether you win enough games by the end of the year."
Still, if the Redskins match their performance from Sunday, it will be difficult not to win enough games. They have, it appears, embraced the influence of Zorn, who repeats phrases such as "stay medium" as a means of maintaining equilibrium. The coach, too, is placing trust not only in his own abilities and those of his coaches, but in his players. Thus, even when they faced that early deficit Sunday, players said the coaches didn't stray from what they had worked on all week.
"There was a great opportunity to go out and panic today," Jansen said. "Nobody would have blamed them for changing things. But they stuck with it, stuck with us."
The result: Washington gained 365 yards over the final three quarters, Philadelphia 135. Washington scored 23 points in that time, Philadelphia three. And the Redskins, for the second straight week, won when they felt few people believed they could.
"Not to dwell on Dallas, but nobody gave us a chance but the guys in the locker room," Griffin said. "We came here, nobody gave us a chance but the guys in the locker room.
"That's how we like it. When you tell us we can't do it, we pretend we're deaf. We don't hear it. We just got to believe in each other."
The next test is precisely the opposite. How will the Redskins react when they hear only praise? What will happen now that upcoming opponents will be forced to consider Washington's accomplishments and ability and understand that a true test is afoot?
"We don't feel," linebacker London Fletcher said, "like the challenge is too great for us."