Players know. That’s the bottom line. They know when a corner is cut or when a principle is violated and turns into lip service. They know who doesn’t work quite as hard, and who is chronically late, and they know how those little things turn into big things on the field, compromising performance and corrupting the locker room. Players know — and what the Washington Redskins know is that they finally have good habits, and they no longer have false hope.
Sure it’s early, and they are just 2-0. But for once, we don’t have to temper expectations about this team. Here’s why: There is a statistic that no one is talking about, but which might be the single most important number in their winning start, more important even than Rex Grossman’s quarterback rating. Through two games they are the most disciplined team in the NFL. They have committed fewer penalties, for fewer yards, than anyone in the league. They have been flagged just six times for 40 yards. Their opponents over the same two games? Try 18 penalties for 140 yards.
What that means is their performance is built on bedrock consistency — guys aren’t screwing up, they aren’t false-starting or committing illegal procedure, or taking a delay of game because they don’t know their assignments or who’s supposed to be on the field. They are playing reliably and accountably on virtually every play.
“We have guys who want to do things right every single day,” says Tim Hightower.
The guys who don’t want to do things right every single day are gone. Coach Mike Shanahan has turned over literally half the roster in his second year, 26 players in all. Ten of those aren’t even in the league any more — and I can think of a couple more who may not be around by next year, either, and the list starts with Donovan McNabb and Albert Haynesworth.
Are there any more questions about Shanahan’s methods, or his judgment, his eye for hungry have-nots instead of complacent veterans, and his preference for the underrated to the overpaid? Shanahan may have made a couple of early mistakes in trying to remake a losing outfit . But the reasoning behind his more controversial dealings is now clear.
“This is the way the good teams do it,” Shanahan says.
Ask any player at Redskins Park what the difference is between the inflated hopes of the last few years, and the real confidence this season, and they will tell you it’s the uncompromising, day-in-and-day-out standards established by Shanahan. There is no more Clinton Portis-like shirking practice only to show up on Sundays. If a player is late to a meeting, he gets fined, and it doesn’t matter whether he’s a first-round draft pick or an undrafted free agent. “Players are smart,” Shanahan says. “They know when people try to get away with things, and you want to make sure the respect level is there, that you’re going to do the right thing with the team.”
Here’s what you see now in the Redskins’ locker room when the clock nears 11:30 a.m.: players with their eyes on the minute hand, grabbing their playbooks and literally sprinting for the hall. Another of the things you notice is that the first guys in the meeting room are highest-paid and the most prominent.
“Guys are doing their jobs, showing up and being professionals and that’s what I like about it,” says Lorenzo Alexander. Shanahan “holds everybody accountable no matter who you are, or how much you make. Sometimes around the league you get perception if you make more money you can get away with more. I think he actually holds those guys more accountable, because they’re our leaders and they should be showing up and being a good example for the younger guys. Before, I don’t think you saw that going on, especially here.”
It’s why there was no negotiating room with Shanahan when it came to Haynesworth’s lack of fitness and balking, or McNabb’s casualness. In both cases, surely the verdict is now in that the Redskins added by their subtraction. Time and again, McNabb was one of the very last men out to the practice field, ambling down the path still adjusting his socks, despite Shanahan’s insistence on tempo. Time and again, Haynesworth sat in meeting rooms insubordinately talking on his cellphone or reading a newspaper. Anyone see Haynesworth limping and flopping in the fourth quarter for the Patriots against the Chargers on Sunday, while Philip Rivers sprinted by him on a scramble? Look familiar?
The reality is that it’s almost impossible to make 53 grown men cooperate on anything if your basic authority structure lacks integrity. Uneven standards undermine belief in the basic competency of the organization. Seemingly silly penalties lead to long-yardage third downs — which in turn lead to turnovers and sacks. And so on. Rules, on the other hand, even seemingly silly ones, create the orderly environment that leads to attention to detail that in turn leads to success.
It may be too early to say that the Redskins have completed the transformation to a winning organization, but they are certainly a disciplined one. On Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals they played clean as a whistle; the offense and defense committed just one penalty between them. Two flags came on special teams.
Look at the players Shanahan subtracted from the locker room, and look at who he replaced them with, and in every instance his personnel moves bespoke discipline. He went for good value, lower profile and high character guys who were, above all, disciplined themselves.
“He says something and he does exactly what he says,” remarks Hightower. “He always talks about a standard, but it’s one thing to talk about a standard and another to have a standard, and to enforce it on a daily basis. The thing you won’t find in this locker room is confusion, about our game plan, or our expectation of you and the team. There is no confusion in this locker room, it’s cut and dried. You may like or dislike it but it’s something you have to respect.”