The game is called credit-card roulette. And it’s how the Redskins’ defensive linemen settle the tab for their weekly dinners out in Ashburn. Each man throws his credit card into a hat. One by one, they’re pulled out. The last card remaining pays.
The offensive line favors home cooking. Left tackle Trent Williams hosts the unit at his house each week, where his chef whips up dinner for nearly a dozen 300-pound-plus men — a time to laugh, talk, drink some wine and settle in for “Monday Night Football.”
The weekly dinners, new this season, are more than a feel-good narrative about an NFL team that’s in the playoff hunt for just the second time in eight years. It’s among several small things that add up to significantly more unity, accountability and leadership among the Redskins — a shift that distinguishes the 2015 squad from those of the team’s recent, forgettable past.
“How can you go to battle with somebody you don’t know off the field?” asks right tackle Morgan Moses, explaining what dinner at Williams’s house has to do with winning football games. “It’s showing up on Sunday. It shows in how we stick together. We pick the running backs off the ground; when somebody’s in somebody’s face, somebody else has their back.
“You can see the bond, and it’s way different than last year.”
That’s not to say the 5-6 Redskins are assured of anything.
For the first time since 1999, they entered December atop the NFC East standings. But their claim on the division lead is tenuous. Monday night’s meeting with the 3-8 Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field brings a chance to bolster their standing and achieve something they haven’t all season: win back-to-back games.
While their fortunes could sour in the five games that remain, the Redskins are in charge of their postseason fate. And a locker room driven by dissent and disillusion last season has fallen in line behind a handful of veterans imported from teams with winning traditions, such as safety Dashon Goldson, defensive end Ricky Jean Francois and nose tackle Terrance Knighton, who, along with Williams, the offensive team captain, are showing the way.
“We have always had leaders in this locker room,” 10-year veteran Redskin Kedric Golston notes, “but the people have to be willing to commit to the leaders.”
That’s what’s different this season, in his view.
“[Defensive coordinator] Joe Barry has a saying: ‘Lead, follow or get out of the way,’ and that has kind of caught on like a mission statement,” Golston adds. “If you want to complain, you go ahead and complain. But you’re going to be in the minority on that as far as this team because we’re pushing on to win football games.”
Under owner Daniel Snyder, the Redskins’ front office has never pinched pennies in pursuit of the playoffs. But all too often the team spent foolishly, collecting Pro Bowl luminaries on the misguided belief that star wattage guaranteed victories. The result was rosters that added up to less than the sum of their parts, dominated by high-priced free agents who signed for a fat payday and a chance to put a final flourish on their personal stats.
Last season’s roster was more notable for dissension in the ranks than for pure talent. After an awkward, misinterpreted call for personal responsibility following a 27-7 loss to Tampa Bay, quarterback Robert Griffin III was castigated for faulting his teammates rather than addressing his own shortcomings. Coach Jay Gruden obliged with a public litany of the latter. And wide receiver DeSean Jackson fired back in thinly veiled fashion via social media, “You can’t do epic [expletive] with basic people.”
With January’s hiring of General Manager Scot McCloughan, the drama and distraction started to ebb.
In an era in which data-driven analytics has turned the art of roster-construction into science, McCloughan, at 44, was old school enough to buck the data-driven approach and look beyond size, strength, speed and stats in retooling the Redskins’ roster. Passion, grit and toughness factored into McCloughan’s evaluation of NFL free agents and draft-day prospects. So, too, did leadership, maturity and experience in winning programs.
Says Williams: “The hat goes off to Scot and the guys in the front office, just going out and searching for those right pieces — guys who have been in competitive situations, guys who know how to win and ultimately veterans who know how to lead. I think it’s definitely helped this locker room tremendously.”
Jean Francois, 29, a veteran of the San Francisco 49ers and Indianapolis Colts, was among the additions. Jean Francois recalls being stunned when Redskins outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan mentioned in passing that he had been to the playoffs only once in his four seasons in Washington.
“I was scratching my head,” Jean Francois recounted. “Out of a seven-year career, I might not have been to the playoffs my first two. But after that, I was either in the NFC championship, the Super Bowl or AFC championship.”
For the Colts and 49ers, reaching the playoffs was the norm. So, too, was unselfishness.
“I’ve just been on teams that the word ‘me’ was never in the dictionary. It’s about ‘us,’ ” Jean Francois said. “When you keep hearing that ‘we’ instead of ‘me,’ I don’t care how tired you are. You’re going to go that extra mile.”
Goldson, 31, a two-time Pro Bowl safety who earned a reputation for aggressive play and diligent work habits in San Francisco, was another McCloughan acquisition. From Day 1, Goldson set a tone in the way he lifted weights, competed in practice, participated in meetings, applied what coaches said and held his new teammates to the same standard. As a result, they voted him their defensive captain before he had played his first regular season game as a Redskin.
“We’ve all been around people that we work with that, when something needs to be said, everyone is kind of saying, ‘Oh gosh, should I say something?’ [Goldson] is that guy that says it,” Barry said. “And it’s always the right thing — whether it’s something encouraging, whether it’s something motivational, whether it’s something that he has to put an arm around a guy or get in a guy’s face.”
Veteran defensive back DeAngelo Hall had high praise for Goldson’s influence with players on both sides of the ball. Holding one another accountable is the new norm, Hall said.
“Instead of a coach calling somebody out and taking it personal, we call each other out, whether it’s a play I didn’t make or a play D-Gold doesn’t make or somebody up front not being in the right gap,” Hall said. “But we do it from a standpoint of almost like brothers calling each other out. People tend to take it different than feeling like a coach is putting them on blast.”
There have been several occasions for open dissent in this season of extremes, which opened with Gruden’s benching of Griffin. A few stand out:
The offense could have blamed the defense for giving up 24 consecutive points to Tampa Bay in Week 7, forcing the frantic second-half rally that produced a 31-30 comeback.
The defense could have blamed the offense for scoring zero points off its three interceptions of Eli Manning in the Week 12 victory over the Giants that vaulted the Redskins atop the NFC East standings.
And both sides of the ball had legitimate gripes after the 44-16 loss at Carolina, in which the offense turned the ball over five times, leading to 27 Panthers points, and the defense let Cam Newton throw a career-high five touchdown passes.
Instead, Goldson called a players-only meeting on the eve of the Nov. 29 Giants game. A loss, everyone knew, would amount to a Giants sweep and gut their postseason hopes.
Goldson’s message was simple and unequivocal. The Redskins had the players to get the job done, if they only would trust and stand behind one another. And quarterback Kirk Cousins was the man to lead them forward, regardless of whether he wore the captain’s “C” on his jersey.
“It got through to everybody. It clicked,” Jean Francois said.
Said nose tackle Chris Baker: “In previous years, there would have been a lot more finger pointing: ‘What is the offense doing? What is the defense doing? What is special teams doing?’ But it’s a lot less of that.
“In the past when things went wrong, it was, ‘Oh my God!’ But now it’s like, ‘We’re going be okay. Just keep playing. We’re going to be all right.’
“It’s a different attitude around here.”