My second year we go to the playoffs. I’m like, ‘We got a team. We’re going to be building. We’re going to go every year.’ That’s what I actually thought.’
— Reed Doughty, drafted 2006
The holdovers, the last remnants of Joe Gibbs’s final team — loyal amid the losing, always believing in a better day.
“I would say we’re survivors,” Alexander said. “We survived, what, three different head coaches? We survived by just going out there, playing good football, playing blue collar. We survived by proving we can fit in any scheme that’s put in place.”
The Surviving Seven still believe.
Stars and role players alike, they have outlasted coaching regimes, seven starting quarterbacks before Griffin, most cut-down days and the wrath of fans forever waiting for a night like Sunday at FedEx Field against the Cowboys.
All of them — Cooley (first signed in 2004), Moss (2005), Doughty, Golston (2006), Fletcher, Alexander and Wilson (2007) — remember what it was like to play in the postseason with Washington (Cooley and Moss have actually played in three playoff games for the Redskins). Two have been cut and re-signed (Cooley and Wilson). Four have been selected to the Pro Bowl (Cooley, Moss, Fletcher and, just this week, Alexander). And all can claim they once played for a man with a bronzed bust in Canton (Gibbs) and lasted long enough to perhaps play with a future Hall of Fame quarterback.
But the tie that really binds is persevering in a time of disappointing and sometimes downright awful football. The Surviving Seven have:
● Played on 5-11 and 6-10 teams for former Super Bowl-winning coaches (Gibbs and Mike Shanahan).
● Known the embarrassment of a 4-12 campaign.
● Dealt with the organization foisting Jim Zorn, Albert Haynesworth and Donovan McNabb upon them.
● Played for three head coaches, three defensive coordinators and one bingo caller.
● Known (after Cooley and Moss) one winning season since they’ve been here. But even that 2007 year remains a fog because of Sean Taylor’s tragic death.
● Gone a combined eight games under .500 before this season.
But here’s the crazy thing: None feels cursed or regretful. Instead, they make it clear that the pain of the past makes today feel that much more earned and treasured.
“To me it’s something that you can learn in life, when stuff’s not going your way if you stick to your gut, stick to what you feel is right, eventually you’ll get to where you’re trying to get to or make something out of it,” Moss said. “That’s what this season has been like. For all the seasons I done came up short — not have a chance to go to the playoffs and not have the chance to be in this situation right now . . . just grinding, man, even though the team hasn’t been doing good — I’ve been putting my all into it. And eventually you get rewarded for it.”
Golston sat in the middle of the team’s locker room in Ashburn recently, trying hard to get his head around the change. “Yeah, this is literally the first time that we’ve been in control of our own destiny since I’ve been here,” the veteran defensive tackle said. “Everybody knows the history the Redskins have. We often talk about it. . . . ‘Those days.’ I’m not going to say that it’s ‘those days,’ but we have the opportunity to do something special.”
He added, “I think it’s almost a tribute to a lot of guys that were older in their careers, the Cornelius Griffins, the Phillip Daniels, the Randy Thomases, the Casey Rabachs, you know, guys that were really good football players but just because of age and things like that weren’t able to get the program to where it is now. Some of those guys were here and they never really won anything. We haven’t won anything, either, but we have the opportunity to.”
The guy who feels the most gratified is one of the most accomplished, the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions for a tight end. A guy who has caught just one pass this season. Why does Chris Cooley feel so good? Because he almost missed out.
Cut before the season started and re-signed to the veteran minimum salary after Fred Davis was lost to injury, the former Pro Bowl tight end nearly had to watch this entire surreal season from his couch in Leesburg.
“Honestly, this is the most special thing ever for me because I was so close to not being a part of this,” Cooley said. “I could see it happening the last year. You could see a team with a spark for the first time in a while, not, ‘We’re trying to get to 3-1, playing kinda good football.’ I’d be dying right now if I was somewhere else. I’d be dying if I was at home.”
If Shanahan gets credit for Griffin and Alfred Morris and plucking a perfect Kai Forbath off the waived-kicker scrap heap, he gets credit here, too. He has turned the roster upside down, building a foundation, clearing out the old to make room for the new. But he couldn’t bring himself to jettison any of the Surviving Seven for good. Heck, he even brought Wilson back after a year away and Cooley back after the tight end’s emotional news conference the day of his release before the season started.
When asked why, Shanahan replied, “Because they are great football players, great people and when you’re talking about building a football team, what I tried to do over the first couple of years is see how people practice, how they played, how important football was to them — especially in the second half of the season.”
What Shanahan found out: “Guys that give you everything should be on this football team and that’s what those guys are. Guys that are still here from the first two years are guys that you want in your foxhole, they give you everything they got.”
After the team is sure to unveil its Young Guns marketing campaign next season — and the filming of RGIII and Morris folding their arms defiantly is over — here’s hoping that the production crew makes time for an Old Warriors promo, too. One in which Fletcher walks through a cloud of smoke, trailed by the six other veterans.
If nothing else, those players would have good back-in-the-day stories to share, bonding over all the bad times, how those days suddenly became these days.
“Winning is good,” Alexander said, simply. “I love winning. What, we’ve been 8-8, which is an all right year. But 5-11, 4-12, 6-10, 5-11 . . . just never competitive. So it’s finally fun to be a part of the talk and legitimate. Even if it’s like going out to the events to meet the fans. They used to always say ‘Go Redskins,’ but you feel like it’s forced. I mean, we’re 4-12. Why would you even cheer for us? But now . . .”
Added Moss, “Everybody that’s been here and been through it, I know they appreciate it the way I appreciate it. You appreciate it that much more. It’s much sweeter when you have the opportunity.”
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