Aside from a geographic affiliation with a place named after the first president, the NFL team representing Washington state has much in common with the NFL team representing Washington, D.C.
Despite rookie quarterbacks whose mastery of the college-style option is changing the very essence of offense at the pro level, both Russell Wilson’s Seahawks and Robert Griffin III’s Redskins are grounded in the basics of a powerful running game. The Hawks rely on Marshawn Lynch, obtained in a 2010 trade with Buffalo that ranks as a steal. The ’Skins rely on Alfred Morris, a sixth-round selection looking like the sleeper pick of last spring’s draft.
Both teams are overseen by coaches who signed five-year contracts within six days of each other in 2010 and then went to work cleaning house. As Pete Carroll was waiting for his Seattle rebuilding project to produce tangible improvement in Year 3, Mike Shanahan, midway through his third season at Washington, seemed to be on a treadmill: working hard, going nowhere.
And then, around the time it did in Seattle, something clicked for the Redskins after they were upset by the struggling Carolina Panthers.
Shanahan had warned of the “must-win” ramifications of that game, and a few minutes after the Redskins fell to 3-6, he sounded like a coach whose team’s season had gone past the brink.
“You lose a game like that, now you’re playing to see who obviously is going to be on your football team for years to come,” Shanahan told reporters. “I’ll get a chance to evaluate players and see where we’re at.”
A concession speech? It sounded like that to two players who spoke off the record to the Washington Post. A third player, linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, told the paper to quote him.
“I’m not thinkin’ about next year,” Alexander said. “That’s an offseason thing for me. But you know it’s hard when you see yourself in that type of position and your head coach is saying those types of things. It’s disappointing.”
Although Shanahan insisted his “chance to evaluate” remarks were misinterpreted, the embattled coach and his players reached consensus on one issue: It was a good time for a break.
The Redskins returned from their Nov. 11 bye refreshed and determined. A 31-6 thumping of Philadelphia began a winning streak that reached seven with a 28-18 victory over Dallas on Sunday night. While not technically a playoff game, the mood at FedEx Field had all the trappings of one: The victors would be crowned NFC East champions and advance to a wild-card round match against the Seahawks; the losers would be eliminated.
What enabled the Redskins to become the first playoff team to recover from a 3-6 start since Jacksonville in 1996? Stability might be as apt a word as any. Early-season injuries to Brian Arapko and Adam Carriker had left the defensive line in flux.
After eight games, Washington was on pace to become the first NFL team in history to surrender 5,000 passing yards. The ’Skins gave up 4,511 – they’d finished 28th in total defense, out of 32 teams – and while the unit never will inspire comparisons to the “Steel Curtain” Steelers, or Da Bears of ’85, it has gained a confidence that approaches a swagger.
“We didn’t have all the horses we expected to have coming into the season,” nose tackle Barry Cofield told the Washington Post the other day. “I think that shocked us a bit.”
The shock last Sunday could be seen on the face of Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, besieged by a blitz package the Cowboys didn’t anticipate. Romo threw three interceptions, partly because he loves to take risks and partly because it was one of those nights the Redskins always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
Seahawks fans are familiar with that sensation, but there were some headaches along the way. A .500 start had revived doubts of Carroll’s effectiveness as an NFL head coach: Four victories, including CenturyLink Field thrillers over the Packers and Patriots, mitigated by four road defeats to beatable opponents.
Dropped passes botched a winning touchdown drive at Arizona. Still more dropped passes prevented the Seahawks from taking a commanding first-half lead at San Francisco. Fewer passes were dropped at Detroit — the offense showed up — only to be let down by a defense that went missing.
Through it all, Carroll never wavered in his belief the Seahawks were on the cusp of greatness.
“We’re not having ups and downs,” Carroll said during a midseason radio interview. “We’re very steady on what we’re doing. I think we’re just a growth spurt away from really taking advantage of how close these games are, and going out and taking them.”
“After eight games,” Carroll added, “we easily could be 8-0.”
Carroll’s hindsight notion of a perfect world — 8-0 after eight games — sounded like a vintage dose of Hyperbolic Chamber Pete. And then the Seahawks went 7-1 over their next eight games. The growth spurt he envisioned was achieved in an instant, when Wilson directed two clutch touchdown drives during the Dec. 2 overtime victory at Chicago.
If it weren’t for the Redskins, the Seahawks would be entering the wild-card round as the NFL’s hottest playoff team. If it weren’t for the Seahawks, the Redskins would be entering the wild-card round as the NFL’s most dangerous playoff team.
Both teams are on a crazy roll, with a combined record of 15-1 since Nov. 4. A tug-of-war tussle between destiny’s darlings and fate’s family awaits on Sunday, and something’s gotta give.
Until then, let’s savor the new year with a question that has only one answer.
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