Reporting David Elfin
Other than the ongoing excellence of rookies Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris, things kept going wrong for the Redskins during each of the season’s first nine weeks.
Top free agent Pierre Garcon messed up his right foot while taking a Griffin pass 88 yards to the house in the shocking opening upset of the New Orleans Saints. Pro Bowl outside linebacker Brian Orakpo and reliable defensive end Adam Carriker went down for the year in Week 2 against the St. Louis Rams. The next week against Cincinnati, Kyle Shanahan’s game plan caused Griffin to get pounded like an overmatched boxer.
And on it went. Roy Helu, last year’s leading rusher, was lost for the year before the Week 4 visit to Tampa Bay. Griffin suffered a concussion in Week 5 against Atlanta. Errant new kicker Billy Cundiff was cut two days later. Tight end Fred Davis ruptured an Achilles in Week 7 at the New York Giants. The following Sunday in Pittsburgh, three days before Halloween, Griffin’s targets had more butterfingers than a trick or treater’s bucket. The horrors finally culminated in an embarrassing home loss to lowly Carolina in Week 9.
After three straight defeats, the Redskins were 3-6, in their usual spot in the NFC East cellar and headed for a fourth straight losing season and fifth consecutive year out of the playoffs.
The only good news was that it was bye week and the Redskins could forget about football for a little while.
“We were a tired group before the bye, had played a lot of games on the road,” said 37-year-old co-captain London Fletcher, one of just six remaining Redskins from Washington’s last playoff team back in 2007. “Once we got away, we kind of regrouped.”
Coach Mike Shanahan reframed the evaluating for next year comment he had phrased so poorly immediately after the loss to the Panthers and conveyed an upbeat message to his players within the context of a typical backs against the wall theme.
Fortunately for Washington, its next foe was even more floundering Philadelphia. The Redskins lost strong safety Brandon Meriweather for the year, but still cruised. Three weeks later, they’re enjoying their best stretch in more than four years after adding their first Thanksgiving triumph at archrival Dallas and conquests of the defending Super Bowl champion Giants and yesterday, AFC North leader Baltimore.
Fletcher, left tackle Trent Williams and No. 1 cornerback DeAngelo Hall overcame injuries to play while the Ravens were minus linebackers Terrell Suggs and Daniel Ellerbe and cornerback Jimmy Smith.
With the Redskins trailing 28-20 and time running down, Griffin injured his right knee, the one whose ACL he tore three years ago. He left for a play, then returned for four before wisely deciding “enough was enough.” Fellow rookie Kirk Cousins, whose only action had come eight weeks earlier when Griffin was concussed, took over on second-and-20 with 45 seconds left. Two plays later, he threw a touchdown pass and then forced overtime with a 2-point conversion run.
“I thought I would try to make something happen, do my best RGIII, if you will,” Cousins said.
Fletcher and Co. delivered a three-and-out series to open overtime. Richard Crawford, a seventh-round draft pick getting his first chance to return punts, took this one back 64 yards to set up the 34-yard game-winning field goal by yet another neophyte, Kai Forbath, now 14-for-14 since being signed to replace Cundiff.
The Redskins’ four straight wins are just one shy of their total during their previous 21 games. In just 22 days, they’ve have won more home games than they did from Week 3 of 2011 through Week 9 of this year. At 7-6, they’ve already won more games than they did in any of the previous three seasons, with 5-8 Cleveland and the 4-9 Eagles up next.
“Sometimes you just kind of get on a roll and right now we’re just rolling,” Fletcher said.
Special teams captain Lorenzo Alexander, another veteran of the incredible ride to the 2007 playoffs that followed the shooting death of star safety Sean Taylor, doesn’t believe that the proverbial tables have turned, that things are now going Washington’s way.
“There’s nothing magical about it,” Alexander said. “Guys are just playing well for 60 minutes, or in this case, for 65 minutes.”
Call it a magical roll, a renewed focus or a reversal of form, but Washington is the NFC’s hottest team. Even if the Redskins keep it going three more weeks, they’re going to need the Giants, Seattle and Chicago to each lose once just to reach a tiebreaker, but for the first time since 2005, they’re on the rise and winning in December. And that’s enough to make folks here forget their troubles for a while.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin