By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011; 12:39 AM
Exactly one year ago, in the eyes of a genuine professional like linebacker London Fletcher, the Redskins were hardly an NFL team at all, but some kind of bizarre, cruel joke in which he was trapped. The day after their final defeat, as Jim Zorn was fired as head coach, the locker room imploded with self-criticisms as disgusted players blasted teammates for bad practice habits, lack of discipline, too much partying, not knowing assignments, acting like prima donnas and, in a nutshell, epitomizing a culture of defeat.
"Last year, by Week 7, the season just drug on. It was like a recurring nightmare. We defeated ourselves on Mondays and Wednesdays. There were so many dramas. We beat ourselves before we ever went on the field on Sunday," said Fletcher after a season-ending, 17-14 loss to the New York Giants on Sunday that gave Washington a 6-10 mark.
While only a two-win improvement, this season felt like the start of a fundamental change in attitude to some, like Fletcher, who said: "We've had controversies this season . . . but playing [for the Redskins] now is a totally different feeling. You can enjoy coming to work. We have each other's backs."
Of course, veteran leaders are supposed to say such things after 10-loss seasons. So, discount some of what Fletcher says. But do not dismiss it or you'll miss what's worth remembering from this Redskins season. To fans far away, this year will be synonymous with the arrival of Coach Mike Shanahan and his constant tumult of fussing and open conflict with Albert Haynesworth and Donovan McNabb.
Those feuds exposed his simmering fuse, the chip on his shoulder, his high demands and his insistence that his systems, his methods, must be followed absolutely. Oh, and it might not hurt to get along with his son, the offensive coordinator, either. But the other side of Shanahan was what the Redskins themselves saw and felt every day. He brought what the Redskins have lacked so often since 1992: Order, discipline and football sanity.
The Redskins are starting to look like a normal NFL team. Oh, let's not get carried away. Don't ignore that botched extra point with nine seconds to play that meant a 17-16 loss to Tampa Bay. Don't forget the locker room tumult before kickoff about the deactivation of a healthy Haynesworth just a month ago when the Redskins looked unprepared to play and were stomped by these same Giants, 31-7. And don't forget that abysmal pregame "fight" and a 35-0 blowout after 16 minutes against the Eagles.
But those bad moments have been the exception this season. The rule has been games like this one in which the Redskins were competitive, didn't ruin their chances with an abnormally high number of mental mistakes and gave themselves a chance to win.
"We had six wins and there were six or seven other games like this one where with different scenarios it could have been different," Shanahan said. "Hopefully, we will learn how to finish."
The Redskins should also be blunt with themselves. They could have won fewer games. Three of their wins were in overtime. Only four teams had a worse yardage differential and only six had a worse point differential. Under Zorn, the Redskins were outscored by 70 points last year; under Shanahan, by 75. The offense was, unfortunately, typical of the Redskins - awful - scoring barely 300 points (302) and maintaining its position as the second-lowest scoring team in the NFL since 1992. The defense almost reduced the idea of "bend-don't-break" defense to absurdity, allowing the most yards in the NFL.
However, for an organization that has spent most of two decades looking disorganized, undisciplined, internally divided and, in several seasons, on the verge of quitting late in the season, the whole shape and sense of this season represented progress.
The Redskins still need enormous improvement in basic physical talent, especially along both lines of scrimmage. It's not just the maligned offensive line, either. Internally, the Redskins also believe their defensive front seven doesn't yet have the physical skills to play the 3-4 defense.
But at the top, the Redskins don't make you want to scream.
In Shanahan's first year, the Redskins increasingly look like a team that can put 11 men on the field (not 10 or 12), almost all of whom actually know their assignments and show a professional level of enthusiasm. Twice, at Tennessee and Jacksonville, the defense was reduced to a quasi-JV by injuries. Yet they played cohesively and won. When the game is close and late, the Redskins win as often as they lose, because they are reasonably organized and don't beat themselves constantly.
Against the Giants, who still had a chance to make the playoffs until the Packers beat the Bears, it was the Redskins who were rallying in the fourth quarter, cutting their deficit to 17-14 with a 64-yard scoring bomb from Rex Grossman to Anthony Armstrong. If place kicker Graham "Oh-No" Gano hadn't missed a 30-yard field goal - "That can't happen. That has to be automatic. . . . It has to be mental because he's better than that," Shanahan said - the Redskins might have been headed to their fifth overtime game of the season.
This game also showed both sides of what will be a continuing debate about Grossman. He passed for 336 yards on 44 attempts and two touchdowns, but he also had an interception and two disastrous lost fumbles on blind-side sacks. In three starts, plus two minutes in Detroit, Grossman has been almost exactly as productive - or unproductive - as McNabb. His quarterback rating of 81.2 is slightly better than McNabb's 77.1, but Grossman has lost four fumbles in addition to his four interceptions for an alarming eight turnovers in slightly more than three games. McNabb had 16 interceptions-plus-lost-fumbles in 13 games.
"We're not quite as bad as our record, but we're not quite a dominant team either," Grossman said. "That's the next step."
They are far from dominant. But, at least, once a team has a comprehensible sense of order, such thoughts are possible on some future day.
"After 6-10, there are going to be some changes," Fletcher said. "We'll build through the draft and free agency. But, I hope, not necessarily with the biggest name guys but the ones who'll buy into what we're doing here now."
A year ago, the Redskins were a circus. Now they are a football team. Not a very good one yet, to be sure. But one that entirely bears the stamp of their stern new coach.