By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2010; 12:07 AM
When an NFL team gets better, moving from one level of the league up to another, the change certainly starts at the top with a new coach like Mike Shanahan, or a better quarterback like Donovan McNabb or, in the case of the Redskins, with an owner who decides to step back and let others have more control.
However, the improvement must spread much further through the team than that. Shanahan's Super Bowl rings and McNabb's accolades in Philadelphia are a catalyst. But new young players must arrive to contribute. And players who were part of the previous losing culture must be redeployed to better advantage, transformed from being part of the problem to keys to a solution.
In Sunday's 16-13 overtime win over Green Bay, the Redskins saw perfect examples of both types of players - wide receiver Anthony Armstrong, the rookie who brings speed, excitement and smiling underdog swagger and safety LaRon Landry, the former high-draft-pick disappointment of '09 who suddenly has begun to fulfill his enormous promise in a new system.
The acrobatic Armstrong caught a 48-yard scoring bomb from McNabb, a heave that traveled 55 yards in the air, that inflamed the crowd of 87,760, shifted the momentum of the game and cut the Redskins' deficit to 13-10 in the fourth quarter.
"Anthony really got things going for us," said a grateful McNabb. "He beat the safety deep. I put it out there high and far for him. And what a catch."
"When I jumped, I was floating," said Armstrong, grinning. "I was WAY up over that safety. He was down at my knees, man.
"You've got to have some swagger."
If Armstrong's catch was an emotional turning point, it was Landry, who was beaten often on deep passes last year in the system of ex-coordinator Greg Blache, who inspired the defense all day with his violence and nose for the ball.
You'd think that causing a fumble and making 13 tackles might be enough for one day's work. But it was Landry's rolling reach-behind-himself interception in overtime - he picking off an Aaron Rodgers pass inches off the ground - that gave the Redskins the ball at the Green Bay 39-yard line in overtime.
"Landry amazes me, to be honest," Shanahan said. "He's fast, a hitter. He loves to play and he's that way every snap."
After Landry's pick, two short McNabb passes and a crucial interference penalty drawn by Armstrong on legendary cornerback Charles Woodson, set up the game-winning 33-yard field goal by Graham Gano.
After Landry's interception, one Packer tried to strip the ball away from him. "Landry's got the biggest arms you've ever seen on a guy his size. You're going to try to strip the ball from him?" said linebacker Chris Wilson. "LaRon could have curled that guy."
"Landry just has incredible speed and power," said safety Reed Doughty. "There is no sense in having a heat-seeking missile if it isn't aimed at the right targets. He's just blowing people up."
No Redskins player disrespects Blache's '09 defensive scheme, especially since, in yardage stats, it's still far ahead of this year's crew. But everyone knows that certain players, especially Landry, already dominant linebacker Brian Orakpo, and versatile 275-pound linebacker Lorenzo Alexander have much more chance to show their talents.
Armstrong and Landry get the primary accolades this time. But they are symptomatic of wider change. Armstrong brings deep speed and vertical leaping to the receiving corps. His development is one reason that the Redskins could release undisciplined wide receiver Devin Thomas before this game. Thomas "has the talent, that's for sure," Shanahan said Sunday. "But he's really going to have to commit himself - on and off the field - to being a pro."
However, there are other young Redskins players who are emerging quickly under Shanahan and replacing players who thought their positions were secure under the previous regime.
Tiny rookie Brandon Banks returned one punt 30 yards and had a scintillating 62-yarder called back because of a penalty. "Both Armstrong and Banks were brought in because of speed," Shanahan said. "You have to have it to make big plays. Both showed some spark today. . . . We were just a hair away [in the kick return game] from having a really big day."
Each week makes it clearer that Shanahan and General Manager Bruce Allen have even wider-ranging ideas about changing the Redskins' makeup than most supposed. Second-year guard Kory Lichtensteiger, drafted by Shanahan in Denver in '08, has come along so quickly that 325-pound veteran Derrick Dockery was a "healthy scratch" for this game. That means: Job lost, new left guard in town.
At left tackle, rookie first-round draft pick Trent Williams has made himself such an immediate fixture that all eyes will watch to see how his left knee feels on Monday. Williams left the game for a few plays after tweaking a previous injury.
At one level, it's indisputable that the Redskins were fortunate - that means l-u-c-k-y - to improve their record to 3-2 Sunday. As the final seconds of regulation time ticked off the clock, a 53-yard field goal attempt by the Packers' Mason Crosby hung high in the crisp autumn air at FedEx Field and seemed destined to end the game with a Green Bay celebration. Six Packers all had their arms over their heads signaling "good" as they prepared.
But five Packers had better judgment than that and held their breath. The Green Bay minority had it correct as Crosby's booming kick smacked off the left upright - more than halfway up the pole - and the Redskins were spared.
Oh, how the Packers then wished that they had kicked a simple 19-yard field goal early in the second quarter to build a 10-0 lead. Instead, they decided to gamble on fourth and goal from the 1 because "they wanted to try to knock us out early," said Alexander.
And the player the Pack tried to pick on was Alexander himself, a player so large he can play defensive line, but fast and agile enough to cover tight ends in pass coverage.
"We were ready for them. Whenever I had [Andrew Quarless] line up on me, it would be a pass. We practiced that coverage all week," said Alexander. So, even though he was isolated in one-on-one coverage in the end zone, Alexander still had the joy of feeling Rodgers's pass bounce off the back of his helmet incomplete.
"Sure felt good when it hit me in the head," Alexander said.
"That goal line stand [with three Packer snaps from the 1-yard line] was the difference . . . the key to the game," Shanahan said.
So far this season, it's been the Redskins' foes who have made the blundering decisions. In the season opener, the Cowboys tried for a senseless flat pass three seconds before intermission: the result was a fumble and a Redskins recovery for a touchdown return. That decided the game.
Now, the Packers help the Redskins, too. Or, at least in my game notes, it says: "Go for it from the one? When you're favored and can go up 10-0? Idiotic!"
Right now, every Redskins game except one has come down to the final play. They could be anything from 4-1 to 0-5. But they're more than happy with 3-2 and 2-0 in the NFC East. When a new regime arrives, many factors are vital. But a few key plays going your way, a "doink" on a field goal that could have meant defeat, carry extra weight. A team trying to escape a 4-12 identity needs every handhold it can find as it climbs.
"The best is yet to come," Landry said.
For now, that's the last word.