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LANDOVER, Md.--Anyone who has dealt with a building contractor knows that no construction job ever moves as quickly as you'd like. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither does a 4-12 football team become a winner overnight.
Still, Mike Shanahan is starting to sweep away a little of the dust from his renovation project, and we're starting to see some encouraging results. Yesterday's improbable 16-13 overtime victory over the Green Bay Packers was an early byproduct of Shanahan's ongoing extreme makeover of the Washington Redskins.
"Two years ago, this isn't a game we were able to win," safety Reed Doughty said. "Even two weeks ago. This is a big win--one of the most special wins since I've been here."
Forget for a moment the opponent (a Super Bowl contender) and the fashion (overcoming a 13-3 third-quarter deficit) of a win that came one week after a 17-12 victory at Philadelphia. Those are significant enough for a team that's accustomed to folding like origami.
But this victory had Shanahan's fingerprints all over it. This is quickly and decisively becoming his team, as he instills confidence in his charges and distances himself from the egregious personnel miscalculations made by his inept predecessors.
Two days ago, Shanahan cut receiver Devin Thomas, one of three unproductive second-round draft picks made in 2008 by former vice president Vinny Cerrato. Another, wideout Malcolm Kelly, is on injured reserve; the third, tight end Fred Davis, has three catches in five games. Thomas was averaging 28 yards per kickoff return, but Shanahan wasn't impressed by his work ethic or lack of offensive productivity.
And yesterday, Shanahan deactivated left guard Derrick Dockery, one of Cerrato's big-money free-agent signees. Low-profile Kory Lichtensteiger, who had been splitting snaps with Dockery, played the whole way.
The immediate results weren't always pretty. The Redskins' running game was nearly nonexistent yesterday, and Donovan McNabb spent part of the day on his back (and another part of it running frantically to avoid that fate). Those are problems that aren't going away. Said linebacker London Fletcher: "[McNabb] has great presence. I just wish we could keep him upright a little more."
Consider that the Redskins won yesterday without Thomas, Kelly, Dockery or Clinton Portis--huge investments made by previous administrations. Before camp even began, Shanahan cleared out aging, injury-prone veterans like Cornelius Griffin and Randy Thomas. Lichtensteiger and tailback Ryan Torain are players Shanahan first drafted while he was coaching in Denver, and he trusts them more than several incumbents.
To a man, the Redskins credit Shanahan and McNabb for bringing poise and confidence to a team that has had little of either recently. With decades of NFL experience between them, they rarely get rattled--and won't allow the sideline to lapse into negativity.
"When the chips are down, in the past we've kind of cashed them in," center Casey Rabach said. "Now we're finding ways to win games."
It helps to have a little of the karma that seemed to evade the Redskins in recent years. It wasn't a coincidence that McNabb's game-changing 48-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Armstrong came two plays after NFL sacks leader Clay Matthews limped off the field with a hamstring pull. Matthews had 1 sacks in little more than 30 minutes and could have had four.
And if Mason Crosby's hooking 52-yard field goal try in the final seconds of regulation hadn't bounced off the left upright, the Redskins might still feel snakebitten.
But good fortune can translate into confidence, and as the old adage goes, good teams make their own breaks. The Redskins haven't had a dangerous punt returner for years, but Brandon Banks' 30-yard return of a bouncing kick gave the Redskins field position--and confidence. Suffice it to say it's a play Antwaan Randle El wouldn't (and couldn't) have made.
Can the Redskins maintain this roll, with Indianapolis and Chicago up next? They still have plenty of flaws: a weak offensive line, shaky defensive backs, little tailback depth and no size at receiver. But for once, lack of poise isn't one of their major deficiencies.
"We weren't really mentally tough in the past," Fletcher said. "Under coach [Joe] Gibbs, down the stretch we were mentally tough [during playoff runs in 2005 and '07], because we played a lot of close games. But since coach Gibbs left [in 2008], we have not been a mentally tough football team."
They're starting to become one again.
Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443