This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Redskins. Few in their right mind, including myself, dared to predict playoffs for a team that had won seven games over the past two seasons and would be led by an erratic quarterback.
But these Redskins fooled us all, didn’t they?
A 38-24 win over the Eagles Saturday night in Philly clinched the Redskins’ first NFC East title since 2012. It also marked the first time since 1999 that they will enter the final week of the regular season with a playoff berth secured. The Eagles and Giants are out of the picture.
Now 8-7 with a game left at Dallas next Sunday, the over-achieving unit will host a first-round playoff game against either the Vikings (10-5), Packers (10-5) or Seahawks (9-6).
In an ecstatic post-game locker room, the victorious Redskins donned baseball caps that said “NFC East Champions” and discussed how it felt to reach such lofty heights and exceed the expectations of so many.
“It feels great,” said linebacker Mason Foster, who signed as a free agent in late September. “Once I got here, I knew we had a lot of talent, and we were going to put it together. We had the right pieces, it would just take a little bit of time to get things right. Coach (Jay) Gruden, (defensive coordinator) Joe Barry, we all put it together. No matter what happened, injuries, guys kept working, and we made it happen.”
Mason, who took over as the starter for an injured Perry Riley three weeks ago against the Cowboys, was one of the “no names” on a defense that, while not Carolina-esque, was stingy enough to help fuel the team’s resurgence. He was joined by other unheralded players such as linebacker Will Compton, cornerback Will Blackmon and Quinton Dunbar, a rookie free agent converted from receiver to cornerback in training camp.
A late signing this season, 10th-year running back Pierre Thomas, had an amazing game against the Eagles with seven catches for 67 yards and four rushes for 22 more.
Those guys combined with existing talent such as superstar tight end Jordan Reed and solid veteran free agent signings like defensive linemen Terrance Knighton and Ricky Jean Francois, plus draft picks who made major contributions in guard Brandon Scherff, defensive end Preston Smith (three sacks and a force fumble against the Eagles), wide receiver Jamison Crowder and safety Kyshoen Jarrett, to form a team with a wonderful chemistry.
This is where Scot McCloughan comes in. He took over as the Redskins’ general manager nearly a year ago after leaving his imprint on championship organizations in San Francisco and Seattle, where the man with a keen eye for talent stockpiled it in droves. He appears to have the Redskins headed in a championship direction, too, if not this season then in the coming years.
Francois voiced respect for McCloughan, whose acquisition is probably the best decision owner Dan Snyder has made since buying the team in 1999. McCloughan has essentially changed the culture of the organization.
“That man did a lot in his career, not only here, not only in Seattle, not only in San Francisco,” Francois said. “Anywhere that man goes, he puts teams together. We got to keep this guy around because this is just the tip of the iceberg. Next year, he’s going to add more guys to the piece of the puzzle. All it’s going to do is get stronger and stronger, and this team is going to get scarier and scarier.”
Then there’s Kirk Cousins, who has elevated his game to become one of the hottest quarterbacks in the NFL. He had another excellent showing against the Eagles, throwing four touchdown passes for a season-high 365 yards with no interceptions and a 120.3 passer rating. It was his fifth straight game with a rating of 100 or more.
Cousins has thrown a remarkable 20 touchdown passes and three interceptions in the past nine games. With 3,990 passing yards, he’s on the cusp of setting the team’s single-season mark of 4,105 set by Jay Schroeder in 1986.
Think back to when Gruden tapped Cousins over RGIII to be the Redskins’ starter prior to the season-opener, an incredibly gutsy move if there ever was one. Nobody could have imagined that a fourth-year quarterback who had struggled to read defenses and threw too many interceptions, some at the most inopportune times, would progress this fast. But Cousins has guaranteed himself a big pay-day once this season is over. He also stabilized Gruden’s job.
“Kirk Cousins has a swagger about himself now,” Francois said. “That was the same guy they said wasn’t going to be a franchise quarterback. It’s funny how he put his hat on out here, but everybody said he wasn’t a franchise quarterback, he’s not a good quarterback. It shocks me to say that’s not a good quarterback. Give the man time to throw and see what he develops into. He developed into an NFC East champion as a quarterback.”
The Redskins, winners of three in a row, have gotten hot at just at the right time. This is when NFL teams want to find their groove so they can carry a lot of momentum into the playoffs.
That’s why the Redskins should play for the win and not take Dallas lightly in the season-finale. After all, who wants to be swept this season by the despised Cowboys?
“I understand I got to enjoy this, but I want Dallas,” Francois said. “We got to think about the Dallas game. That’s a great team. That’s Jerry’s team. That’s a good team that beat us in our building."