Redskins make a habit of cutting it close: four of five have been up for grabs at the end

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 1:57 AM

Mike Shanahan broke into coaching 35 years ago and in that time, he's paced the sideline of 539 football games. The Redskins coach says he's never seen anything quite like his team's recent stretch of high-drama finishes.

"I don't believe I can remember any scenario like that since I've started coaching," Shanahan said Monday.

The Redskins escaped Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers with a come-from-behind win, thanks to an overtime field goal from Graham Gano. They'll carry a 3-2 record into next weekend's contest against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts - plus an undeniable penchant for dragging games out until the last possible moment.

Four of Washington's five games this season have been decided by less than a touchdown. Not only that, but all four contests essentially came down to the game's final play.

In the season opener, the Redskins squeezed out a six-point win when a Dallas Cowboys touchdown as time expired was nullified because of a holding penalty. One week later, the Houston Texans beat the Redskins by three points, courtesy of a game-winning field goal in overtime. And then against Philadelphia, Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb heaved a pass deep as time expired, aimed at a wide receiver but instead intercepted by cornerback DeAngelo Hall to preserve the Redskins' five-point win.

Players and coaches say they are getting used to holding their collective breath on the sideline, but they have confidence late in games that didn't exist in recent seasons. In 2009, the Redskins played 10 games that were decided by eight points or fewer. Only one team played in more. The Redskins lost eight of the 10.

With a 3-1 record in games decided by less than a touchdown, this season's group already has won more close games than Jim Zorn's squad could a season ago.

"It just shows the heart and character and the confidence that we have in one another," said second-year linebacker Brian Orakpo.

It's a trend to which Redskins fans have grown accustomed. Since 2006, no team has had more games decided by eight or fewer points than Washington's 46 (Chicago is closest with 40). And in that same time span, no team has played in more than the Redskins' 23 games that were decided by a field goal or less (Tampa Bay is closest with 21).

But while the Redskins are familiar with these close games, the difference this year, players say, is their confidence level as the final seconds tick off the clock.

"I just feel like right now, we have what it takes to be the team every weekend that comes out with a W," said wide receiver Santana Moss. "Whether it goes that way or not, we're a team that can beat teams. Before, yeah, we wanted to win games but we wasn't ready to win games - meaning the stuff that we did throughout the week . . . it wasn't enough. We had to do a little more. We didn't do that. And that's what we're doing now."

That preparation is by design. Like other head coaches, Shanahan devotes time in practice each week to late-game scenarios. The trick is considering enough scenarios so that his players are prepared for anything.

"Maybe it's a Hail Mary. What do you want to do on a Hail Mary?" Shanahan said. "When do you use a Hail Mary? What circumstances? What type of defense do you have if you're on the midfield 50-yard line and there's 17 seconds and there's one timeout? What are the two or three scenarios that exist?

"There's so many different things that you look at that you try to put them through, so in game situations like we face, they're not surprised," Shanahan continued. "You've been through it, you've practiced it, you've talked about it, you've walked through it. So now they just try to go out there and execute it."

And that's where players find their confidence on the sidelines. Their weekday preparations give them a comfort level that they're ready for anything when the game is on the line and everything hinges on one final snap.

"We prepare for whatever," Moss said. "I think what [Shanahan] does is make sure his team's in the best situation come any given moment because you never know what you're going to be facing on the football field."

Even if they're getting better at winning these close games, the Redskins' preference would be to pull ahead early and never look back. But they still face myriad problems on both sides of the ball.

The offense is inconsistent, struggling to find a rhythm each week. The Redskins have shown a wavering commitment to the running game, and quarterback Donovan McNabb is struggling to involve more than Moss and tight end Chris Cooley in the passing game.

On defense, the Redskins have given up more yards than any team in the NFL (though only eight teams are allowing fewer points). In their first four games, the Redskins struggled in the final two quarters, but against the Packers, they didn't really come to life until the second half.

"I think the perfect scenario, we'd all like to put teams away early," Shanahan said. "And we'd like to dominate teams. That's your goal. Obviously, it doesn't always work out that way. But that's your plan. I think ultimately, you have to find a way to win."

And though it hasn't been pretty and it doesn't always go as designed, the Redskins seem to be finding a way to do that. And they're doing it in the same nail-biting scenarios in which previous Redskins teams have lost.

"Thus far, it's been games week in and week out that have been scary, been ugly," Moss said. "But we found a way to win. Those games gonna count down the road. I appreciate just being ready for those kind of situations because I recall previous years where those games came up and we lost those games."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company