ASHBURN, Va. -- The energy returned to practice last week, though in truth it never went far away. It increased with the return of several injured players. It increased thanks to added competition during practice.
But it’s not as if the Washington Redskins had slumbered their way through previous weeks. Rather, it was just so that last week topped other ones. The result: a 33-point win over New Orleans. What helped the Redskins was a variety of factors: a bad Saints defense, healthier players and a mindset that really hasn’t changed since camp began.
“They’re bringing in guys that have changed the culture,” Redskins defensive end Chris Baker said recently. “They come from teams who had success and have been on playoff teams and Super Bowl runs. We have to get their attitude among everyone in the locker room. A lot of times in the past we’d get down and guys were like, ‘Here we go again.’ We’ve got these guys and they’re like, 'Hey just stick to it we’re gonna find a way to win.'”
A bad loss at New England – not an unexpected loss, but the Redskins did not play well – could have led to more of that previous thinking. It did not. Having receiver DeSean Jackson continue to regain his health helped; same with corners Chris Culliver and Bashaud Breeland and DeAngelo Hall.
That prompted coach Jay Gruden to do something he did in 2014 as well: pit the No. 1 offense against the No. 1 defense in various drills. Not for an entire practice, but for a portion. Competition increases the intensity of practice – that’s true at any level, but especially with pro athletes. The defense won four of the five reps versus the offense, setting a tone for a strong day in which the Redskins held the Saints to 14 points.
“It was fun,” Gruden said. “They were fired up. We’ll continue that in some regard — it might two-minute next week, it might third down, it might be red zone.
“[But] I don’t think that was a result just because we went ones-on-ones for five plays, but that was part of it. I just think for whatever reason our guys came out with a lot of energy. We have to maintain that because when you have a great week of practice and reward them with a positive game like we played against New Orleans, hopefully it will make them want to come back and practice hard again this week, which I think they will.”
But the other part is the changed culture. It’s been evident for a while that this locker room is different than the past two seasons in particular, when Fridays were an adventure. They were a loose bunch and whether or not it was connected, they were also a team that won a combined seven games.
Enter players such as Terrance Knighton, Dashon Goldson and Ricky Jean Francois, among others, signed by general manager Scot McCloughan. A few weeks ago, Baker talked about how Culliver practices. A few days later, he challenged practice-squad receiver Corey Washington a second time after the wideout felt he’d been interfered with on a pass in a one-on-one drill. That led to Culliver’s “easy work” clip.
“Cully never wants to get beat, but he doesn’t want the guy behind him to look better than him,” Baker said. “All the time he wants to be the best. When you have stuff like that from Cully and Goldson and Knighton, it trickles down to the rest of the team.”
In previous years, some players considered leaders came to Washington and tried to ease into that role. Not this group.
“As soon as we came in our presence was felt right away,” Knighton said. “We didn’t come in and feel our way and see where we fit in. Guys set the tone and said what we’re going to be and that’s the way it is. That's the reason we are in the thick of things right now, because we fight and we give ourselves a chance every week.”
That doesn’t mean they’ll end up winning the division or qualifying for the playoffs. Maybe they only win a couple more games. But it does explain why they’ve overcome key injuries thus far and have rallied in some games or responded after ugly outings. The past two seasons the ninth game was a loss (at Minnesota both times) and that sent the Redskins’ season into a tailspin. Perhaps a loss last week would have done the same. It’s a moot point.
“It’s the mindset,” Knighton said. “Guys come from winning situations, but it starts with the owner to the GM and when the GM comes to the locker room and sets the tone for the team, it feeds down to the head coach and goes throughout the roster.”