Mike Shanahan stepped behind a lectern beneath the stands at FedEx Field at 4:26 p.m. on Nov. 4, minutes after his Washington Redskins had lost their third straight game, 21-13, to the Carolina Panthers. He wore a long-sleeved white pullover, which set off the bright redness of his face. He fidgeted with the mike stand in front of him. He touched his nose then pursed his lips as the first question was asked: Where does the Redskins’ season go from here?
Shanahan shifted his gaze from the questioner’s face to the wall in the back of the room, and his eyes began to drift without landing again as he spoke. His voice was hoarse.
“When you lose a game like [this], now you’re playing to see who, obviously, is going to be on your football team for years to come,” Shanahan said, in comments that would be scrutinized, dissected, debated, criticized, defended and backed away from in the days and weeks that followed.
“Now we’ve got a chance to evaluate players and see where we’re at,” he continued. “Obviously, we’re not out of [the playoff race] statistically, but now we find out what type of character we’ve got, and how guys keep on fighting through the rest of the season.”
In a sense, this remarkable Redskins season can be separated into two parts: everything that occurred up to that moment, and everything that has occurred since. The parts are so incongruous as to defy the notion that they could have been produced by the same team.
The Redskins were 3-6 and in last place in the NFC East when Shanahan made those comments, their season on the verge of unraveling. Ahead of them was a bye week, followed by what appeared to be a slow winter’s slog toward irrelevancy, with all its attendant discontent and pointed questions about the franchise’s direction under Shanahan’s rule.
But now, following five straight victories, the Redskins are 8-6, tied for first place and could clinch a playoff spot Sunday when they travel to Philadelphia to play the Eagles in the season’s penultimate game. Win Sunday and again next Sunday at home against Dallas and they will win their division, which means the Redskins, on Jan. 5 or 6, would host the franchise’s first home playoff game in 13 years. Just three teams in NFL history have made the playoffs after being 3-6, none since 1996.
The Redskins made no drastic changes between the Carolina game and the Philadelphia game that followed two weeks later. And yet, something had changed — something imperceptible perhaps, but fundamental. Somewhere amid the controversy stirred up by Shanahan’s comments, the escape provided by the bye week, and the soul-searching that needed to take place on an individual basis, the Redskins discovered their missing ingredient.
And even if they can’t (or won’t) define what exactly that ingredient is, they know it was missing before, but is present now.
If you want to pinpoint the instant the molecular change occurred — the precise line of demarcation between the two disparate segments of the Redskins’ season — you might look to the moment Robert Griffin III, the Redskins’ rookie quarterback, praised for his dynamic play and his preternatural poise before the cameras, climbed behind the same lectern that Shanahan had vacated minutes earlier and sounded a starkly different tone, one of determination and personal responsibility.
“I promise you I’ll come back, and I’ll be a better quarterback the second half of the season for us, for this team,” Griffin said, his trademark smile completely absent. “And prayerfully, everybody comes back with the same mind-set. . . . After the bye, I think you’ll see a different team.”
Back in a nearly empty locker room a few moments later — still unaware of what Shanahan had said half an hour earlier — Griffin gave a brief interview to the Redskins’ television network and doubled down on the challenge to his teammates.
“Guys just shouldn’t come back [from the bye week] if they’re going to feel sorry for themselves,” he said into the camera. “I know for myself, I’m not going to stop working. I’m not going to stop putting it on the line every week, every play.”
When they asked about his sullen demeanor, Griffin replied: “I don’t really smile after losses much, especially now, because we’re in dire straits. We’ve got to get wins and hopefully still make the playoffs. For me, it’s an uneasy feeling because you don’t know what to say or how to feel, so the only thing I know to do is to fight back.”
Shanahan knew within hours of his postgame comments that he had created a mess. On NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” analyst and former head coach Tony Dungy seemed incredulous. “I would never tell my team that,” Dungy said.
Shanahan made his first attempt to walk back the comments to an ESPN.com writer who telephoned him the next morning. Rather than apologize, or acknowledge an inartful bit of phrasing, Shanahan insisted his comments had been misinterpreted — a stance he would maintain in the coming days.
“To insinuate that I was giving up on the season,” he said, “is completely ridiculous.”
If the interpretation by the media was universal — Shanahan was blasted by national and local outlets — the reaction within the Redskins’ locker room was mixed. Some players still in the locker room late Sunday afternoon, who were relayed Shanahan’s comments by reporters, had expressed surprise.
“He said that?” said fullback Darrel Young when told of the comments, before deciding he didn’t want to say anything more until he heard from Shanahan himself.
Privately, some players grumbled about the appropriateness of Shanahan’s comments, even if the sentiment was correct. “You can think that,” one veteran defensive player said, “but you can’t say that publicly.”
Still, given the sheer number of players on a football team and the way such episodes tend to blow up in professional sports, especially with losing teams, it is remarkable that not a single Redskins player openly criticized or even questioned Shanahan’s comments. The vast majority either gave their coach the benefit of the doubt, or said they would withhold judgment until they heard directly from him.
“I know a lot of people are taking that statement and running with it,” Griffin said, “but I don’t feel like he’s throwing in the towel.”
Many players watched Shanahan’s weekly Monday news conference on television, where, this time wearing a blue open-collared dress shirt, the coach again claimed his comments had been misinterpreted.
“I think everybody that knows me since I’ve been here [knows] it doesn’t matter what your record is — we’re going to play to win every game,” Shanahan said.
The Tuesday after the Carolina loss, Nov. 6, was Election Day, and Shanahan stopped at his local polling place in Reston before driving to Redskins Park, where that morning he finally addressed the players, immediately referencing the furor over what he had meant in his postgame news conference two days earlier.
“He was like, ‘This is what they said I said, [and] this is what I mean,’ ” cornerback DeAngelo Hall recalled. “He didn’t go into detail about what he said. He just kind of laid out what was ahead of us at 3-6: ‘Listen, why would I say what they said I said, when at 3-6, this is what could happen?’ ”
According to Hall, Shanahan showed the players the remaining schedules of the three other NFC East teams — noting that the first-place New York Giants had by far the toughest — and then showed them the Redskins’ remaining schedule, featuring five games against division opponents.
“He told us we control our own destiny,” Hall said. “And for a 3-6 team to have someone tell them [things] are looking good — that don’t happen. And guys were like, ‘Okay, okay.’ You don’t like to look ahead. But sometimes it’s not bad to look ahead. . . . He kind of opened everyone’s eyes as to what the reward could be.”
Not only did Shanahan manage to quell the controversy, he also succeeded in unifying the locker room around a common enemy: the media.
“He’s not pleased the way it got handled in the media,” veteran tight end Chris Cooley said following Shanahan’s address. “He was very clear to us about that. We get that. It’s happened to all of us.”
After the typical day-after film review and “corrections,” the Redskins’ coaching staff quickly put the Carolina loss behind it and began looking ahead — not to the Philadelphia game the following Sunday, but to the Thanksgiving Day game at Dallas four days after that. Because of the “short” week preceding the Dallas game, Shanahan decided to use the bye week to begin preparing for the Cowboys, before turning their full attention to the Eagles when the players returned from the break.
The coaches also understood they had to turn their focus inside. Jim Haslett, whose league-worst defense to that point had made him a frequent target of fans’ ire, and his assistants reevaluated everything from their game plans to how they used certain players on specific down-and-distance situations.
“It was really the perfect time to get away and take a look at everything we were doing, why we were doing it and what we could do better,” Haslett recalled.
Haslett made a determination to rotate more players in packages, and when the squad reassembled after the bye he told his reserve players to prepare themselves to play more.
Before the players left Redskins Park on Tuesday afternoon for the five-day break — which is mandated by the NFL’s labor agreement — there was one more piece of business: the team photo. The players took their places, arranged by jersey number, on a section of bleachers set up in the middle of the indoor practice bubble.
On the floor in front, Griffin, wearing his familiar No. 10, sat cross-legged, flanked by No. 8 Rex Grossman and No. 11 Aldrick Robinson. The coaches, in white polo shirts, stood in formation on either side of the players.
Players and coaches alike would not have been human if it didn’t cross their minds at least briefly what kind of situation they would be returning to when they reassembled six days later.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan parted ways with his quarterback Nov. 6 with one direct order: “Robert,” he said, “make sure you get away.” He understood that Griffin’s natural inclination would have been to stay home, show up at the facility each day and keep working.
Perhaps Shanahan should have heeded his own advice. He spent his own break at home, intending to focus his mind toward his family — and away from football.
But “it was not a fun bye week,” Kyle Shanahan said. “We didn’t play good [entering the bye], and all I was thinking about was getting back and playing Philly.”
As for Griffin, he ultimately split the difference between a long-distance getaway and a “staycation” at home — deciding at the last minute to book a room at a resort in Cambridge, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and driving himself and his fiancee with the goal of getting away “from the familiar.”
But before he could leave, Griffin had obligations to fulfill: a video to film for Gatorade, one of his sponsors, and a series of interviews that had been previously scheduled for the bye week. In these interviews, one of which was with The Washington Post, he dropped frequent allusions to the need to wipe out excuse-making — an implication that some of that was occurring within the Redskins’ locker room.
But pressed for details, he demurred.
“I’ll never throw anybody under the bus,” he said. “It’s just a matter of — we just can’t look for excuses as to why we’re not successful. If I make a bad pass it’s because I made a bad pass. It’s not because Kyle called a bad play. It’s not because [the offensive line] didn’t block. I’ll never make that excuse. So we just have to find guys and have everybody buy into that. . . . It’s just a matter of owning your mistake and learning from it.”
The rest of the Redskins scattered, some staying home with their families, others visiting out-of-town family or taking their girlfriends or wives on a quick getaway.
“I stayed here and basically sat in my house the whole week, as pathetic as that sounds,” linebacker Perry Riley said. “I did little things with my family, the girlfriend and my son. We went to Chuck E. Cheese and all that, but I was resting.”
Sunday, Nov. 11, the final day of the Redskins’ break, brought with it a choice: to watch NFL football or not. Some players did, some didn’t. But the ones who did were rewarded with a pleasant result that directly impacted the Redskins, and that set a tone of hopefulness that carried into the work week that followed: The Cincinnati Bengals upset the Giants, 31-13, bringing the NFC East leaders a step back toward the pack.
Mike Shanahan watched that game in his office, where he had decamped to get a jump-start on the first day of preparation for the Eagles game.
In Amityville, N.Y., where he was visiting his parents, Young watched the Giants lose and had something of an epiphany.
“The Giants got their [butts] whupped,” Young said. “I’m like: ‘Wait, this is the same team that won the Super Bowl. If that can happen, why can’t we get on a roll like they did [in 2011] and get into the playoffs?’ I said to myself: ‘It’s time. Something needs to change.’ ”
When the Redskins reassembled at Redskins Park on Nov. 12, there was nothing outwardly different about them. But whether it was a newfound focus, a renewed spirit or simply a natural restlessness that comes with five days of rest, many players were aware that something had changed.
“Guys were just anxious to get back out there and get that nasty taste out of their mouths,” linebacker and special teams captain Lorenzo Alexander said. “You could tell there was a different type of energy.”
Said Young: “The players had some swag. We’re going to do something.”
The biggest tangible change to the Redskins came on the injury report, where wide receiver Pierre Garcon, who had missed the previous four games, and safety Brandon Meriweather, who had not played all season, were cleared for practice and pointed toward playing Sunday. Tackle Jammal Brown also was cleared — and while Brown and Meriweather ultimately suffered setbacks and were placed on the injured reserve list, ending their season, the Redskins were as close to full health as they had been all year.
Griffin, back from a few days of much-needed seclusion from his growing celebrity, used the opportunity of the first practice after the bye week to stand in front of his teammates and deliver a stirring speech that, one of them later noted, had them ready to “run through a wall.”
“He was just letting us know we’re not out of it: ‘We can still flip the script. We can still change the tide,’ ” tight end Niles Paul said. “Everybody was like, ‘Uhhhhhh’ [making an expression of skepticism]. But just seeing him and how he believes what he’s saying, it just kind of motivates everybody.”
“I think it did help,” defensive end Kedric Golston recalled of Griffin’s speech. “But if we don’t win those football games, it’s just another speech that no one [outside the locker room] would ever know about. We’ve had speeches before around here and kept on [losing]. The main thing is, when we came back we had 53 guys who made a commitment to each other to be better players.”
In individual conversations, Griffin began imploring his offensive teammates, telling them that he didn’t just want to beat the Eagles, he wanted to dominate them — to set a new, aggressive tone for the rest of the season.
“A lot of guys went out and probably had to do some soul-searching just to find themselves, to come back hungry, and I think everybody did that,” Griffin said. “. . . I thought I was hungry before the bye week. You come back and you realize how much more energy you have just having that week off.”
Two days after Griffin’s speech, on a Wednesday, Redskins players were handed blank paper ballots. For years, it had been a Redskins tradition to add several new captains after the bye week. The electees this year were defensive linemen Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen, both seven-year veterans — and Griffin, their 22-year-old rookie quarterback, with a total of nine NFL games under his belt.
Mike Shanahan, who could not recall another example of an NFL rookie being named a team captain, announced the results to the entire team as it gathered on the practice field prior to that afternoon’s practice.
There was no time for Griffin to speak — the players simply applauded, strapped on their helmets and went to work — but he had already said all he needed to say two days earlier.
On Friday, two days before the Eagles game, Jacqueline Griffin re-braided her son’s hair at his Leesburg townhouse, a painstaking process that takes up to four hours but that has been a part of their bonding for years.
Most times, Griffin falls asleep as his mother toils away, or munches on peanut-butter sandwiches. But this time, he was full of energy, and they talked about what lay ahead. He was adamant in his belief that the Redskins, despite their 3-6 record, were a very good team that had simply not played to its potential.
The subject of the playoffs came up.
“Robert wasn’t thinking playoffs,” Jacqueline Griffin said. “He was thinking Super Bowl.”
Aside from football, Griffin’s thoughts that week were with U.S. servicemen and women. Both his parents are retired Army sergeants, and his father had served two tours of duty in Iraq. The Monday before the Eagles game was Veterans Day, and Griffin took to Twitter to praise members of the military for their service and sacrifice.
“The men and women who have stood, are still standing, and have fallen so that we may live our lives free are my heroes,” one of his tweets said.
That Sunday, “Salute to Service” day at Fedex Field, was a sun-splashed afternoon, 52 degrees, and Griffin — wearing the captain’s “C” on his chest for the first time — ran onto the field during pre-game introductions waving a giant American flag and screaming, “Woooooo!!!!”
Three plays into the game, Hall, the Redskins’ veteran cornerback, intercepted a pass and returned it to the Philadelphia 9-yard line. Two plays after that, Griffin made what could have been a crucial mistake — calling for a pass play out of the wrong formation. But he improvised, and hit Young, the fullback, for a six-yard touchdown pass.
One minute 47 seconds into the Redskins’ new season, and already their fortunes had changed.
Rather than celebrate on the field as he usually does — with a quick kneel-down, a short prayer and an index finger pointed to the sky — Griffin immediately sprinted to the sideline and apologized to Kyle Shanahan for getting the formation wrong.
“It doesn’t matter when you throw a touchdown,” Shanahan told Griffin, punctuating it with a hug. “So don’t worry about it.”
Just as he had vowed to do, Griffin dominated the afternoon. The Eagles game was perhaps his best of the season, featuring four touchdown passes, no interceptions, only one incompletion in 15 attempts and a technically “perfect” passer rating of 158.3.
The Redskins won, 31-6, and they have done nothing but win since.
Mike Wise, Mark Maske, Kent Babb, Jason Reid and Mike Jones contributed to this report.
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