ASHBURN, Va. -- At the age of 37, not having seen the Super Bowl since his fourth season, veteran linebacker London Fletcher signed a two-year deal to return to the Washington Redskins. He had spent the previous five years with the Redskins, who had a composite record of 32-48 over that time and had made exactly one playoff appearance. But there was much about the place that drew him back. He liked the way he fit into the defense. He felt he'd been treated well by ownership and the coaching staff. And he couldn't escape the feeling that, if he left now, he might miss something.
"You put so much into it and you've gone through a lot of the losses," Fletcher told me in June. "You don't want to leave and then all of a sudden the thing kicks around and you're like, 'Shoot, I missed it.' I wanted to return, it was just a matter of getting a deal done."
So return he did. And of all the players in the Redskins locker room, there are few who are getting more enjoyment out of the fact that this year's team just went 10-6 and is preparing to host a playoff game Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.
"Definitely, I'm appreciating this a lot more," Fletcher said. "You think about this group, this team and what we were able to accomplish, being 3-6 at one point during this season and then making the playoffs. I can say I'm enjoying this a lot more and I'm more appreciative of it because I realize how difficult it is to make the playoffs now."
There's also something special about making it here. The Redskins were once one of the NFL's flagship franchises -- a three-time Super Bowl champion with one of the most intensely loyal fan bases in sports. That fan base has remained passionate and loyal throughout a terrible and lengthy downturn. Until Sunday, the Redskins had not won a division title since 1999 and had only made the playoffs three times in 19 years. But the players who have played for the Redskins during this stretch -- guys like Fletcher, Santana Moss, Chris Cooley and Lorenzo Alexander -- they always felt something special about the place. Whether it was the fans or the history or the town, there was something that pulled these guys back -- a feeling that it would be better to stick it out and win here than to go off somewhere else and join an extant winner.
"Anytime you become a part of the team and the community, a sense of loyalty sets in," said Pro Bowl linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who's been a Redskin since 2006. "And when you're in it and it's not going well, you want to change it and be a part of that change. This is a team that's been pretty bad the last six, seven years, and now you get to be a part of that change. I think it's a little bit more memorable that way than if you go and sign with a team that wins all the time. I think you appreciate it a little bit more."
Look at Cooley, the veteran tight end who grew up a Redskins fan, has played here since 2004 and rushed right back midseason in spite of getting cut in August and being promised no significant role.
"I never had any doubt this would be a great place to win," Cooley said.
Look at Moss, who re-signed in 2011 and whipped himself into better physical shape this offseason after the coaches told him his roster spot was in jeopardy.
"This place is home. It becomes your home," Moss said. "So you feel like you're playing not just for yourself, but for this whole community that wants it so bad. And that's something extra."
There is something extra about winning as a Redskin, especially after the franchise went so long without anything to cheer. There's no way to know how long the current ride will last. It could end Sunday or it could take the Redskins all the way to New Orleans and the Super Bowl. But the special feeling around here is that of a corner turned -- a bright hope for the future behind rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III and all of the new pieces Mike Shanahan has added the past two offseasons. The Redskins who have slogged through the bad years feel great about this very good year because they think it's the first of many to come.
"I think you feel a culture change, which is what was needed around here," Alexander said. "And when you go through the down times and you can be a part of that kind of culture change, it's very satisfying, I would say."