The View from Austin: Will Character Be the Difference?
Will the Redskins repeat as NFC East champions? Many pundits are giving them a decent chance, but they almost universally agree that the Redskins hopes for repeating hinges entirely on the health of Robert Griffin III. If he goes down or suffers a setback, then the season is over. While this argument is possible, I’m not sold on it.
The success of the 2012 Redskins was built on character, grit and determination. It was not built on a squad of healthy, blue-chip players. Faced with an $18 million cap penalty, the coaching staff and front office had to field the best team they could afford. Early in the season, key injuries on defense left the unit in shambles. With no pass rush, and a cobbled-together secondary, the Redskins finished near dead last in passing yards allowed. Pierre Garcon, our prized number one receiver went down in the 1st game, and disappeared for the first half of the season. We had an exciting, but unproven quarterback in Robert Griffin III, and a 6th round running back from Florida Atlantic earning a starting spot over a gimpy Helu. Given these obstacles, the team should have finished 4-12 to 7-9 at best. That obviously didn’t happen.
The Redskins have managed to return the entire 2012 squad, less Madieu Williams, Brandon Banks and Lorenzo Alexander. The team is still saddled with an $18 million cap penalty, and no first-round draft pick. Many of the returning veterans opted to restructure their contracts and take pay cuts to keep the unit intact. Critics will argue that last year’s 7-0 run at the end of the season was a flash in the pan, and is unsustainable in the future. I agree. But that win streak was crucial to building a team on a foundation of character. And in my view, it’s the primary reason why most of our free-agent veterans didn’t seek employment elsewhere. To a man, there’s a unified sense of pride in the team, and a very strong feeling that there is unfinished business that needs to be settled. If the season had ended 5-11 or 6-10, I believe there would have been a mass exodus of free agents seeking greener pastures.
Shannahan has always talked about building teams on a foundation of character. To be honest, all of this “character” talk just sounded like “coach-speak” to me. After all, Redskins fans have endured decades of high-priced, “me first” players who had eclipsed the twilight of their careers. One by one, the “me first” players (Haynesworth, McNabb, etc.) have been replaced with high-character free agents and rookies with names like Kerrigan, Griffin, Morris, Orakpo, and many others. The blend of high-character veterans and youth has built a critical mass, and is continuing to grow. Instead of a collection of talented individuals, the Redskins roster has become a team. These guys really like each other. The defense cheers for the offense, and the offense gets pumped for the defense. It’s no longer a finger-pointing, “us vs. them” culture between offensive and defensive squads.
I haven’t seen this much cohesion on a Redskins team since the Gibbs 1 era. Back then, I would argue that Dallas had a much better team on paper, but nobody could beat the Redskins. Shannahan has managed to build the same culture. He speaks about the importance of character, and he means business. The team is bought in. Players like Trent Williams and Fred Davis have stepped up and now see themselves as a part of something that can be great. The Redskins will also become a magnet for talented free agents who are drawn to the culture of the organization in years to come.
Does this culture change guarantee success? Absolutely not, but it can go a long way toward winning games that we would have lost in the past. George Allen was once quoted as saying “Forty men together can’t lose”. For my part, I believe a united team almost always trumps a collection of talented, “me-first” individuals. The 2013 Redskins will not be defined by the magic of Robert Griffin III. The outcome of this season will be determined by an all-out, unified effort on offense, defense and special teams. Character and determination will separate the Redskins from the rest of the NFC East, and it will be a key reason why they repeat as NFC East champions.