On thanksgiving morning, as Washington Redskins coach Marty Schottenheimer presided over a team meeting, he noticed that backup running back Ki-Jana Carter had his eyes closed. "Somebody better wake up Ki-Jana," Schottenheimer said, an edge in his voice. Carter protested that he wasn't asleep, but the damage had been done: The ironhanded coach had caught a backup player resting his eyes in a meeting. Marginal players have been whacked for less.
That afternoon Carter botched his assignment on a play in practice, and a couple of teammates hooted him down. "Can't go fallin' asleep in meetings!" one shouted. Players watched Schottenheimer for his reaction. Surely Mount Marty would erupt and make an example of Carter by castigating, fining or even firing him, particularly after the my-way-or-the-highway training camp Schottenheimer had run, one that had driven a wedge between the coach and some veterans.
Schottenheimer, though, turned to Carter and told him not to worry. This is what practice is for, he said. Just make sure you don't do the same thing in the game on Sunday. One veteran, defensive end Marco Coleman, noted later that this was clearly an example of a changed coach. "I bet in the summer he would have cut Ki-Jana for that," Coleman said.
Schottenheimer pondered his handling of those incidents last Saturday night at the Redskins' hotel in Philadelphia, where the next day this strangely determined team would continue the most remarkable turnaround in recent NFL history: Washington's 13-3 victory over the Eagles put the Redskins—who had lost their first five games—at the .500 mark. As he sat in the hotel, however, Schottenheimer said he had not changed drastically from July to November, and in truth the alterations he's made have been mostly cosmetic. "Sometimes in coaching you've got to do not what the players deserve," he said. "You've got to do what they need."
Lately, Schottenheimer has given new fortunes to a needy bunch. Carter, unemployed all last season, is Washington's latest hero of the week, following in the footsteps of such NFL heavyweights as Tony Banks, Zeron Flemister, Kent Graham, Kevin Lockett and Derrius Thompson. With franchise runner Stephen Davis temporarily sidelined with a strained lower back on Sunday, Carter scored the only touchdown—his first in two years—in a game that set offensive football back several decades. His five-yard second-quarter scamper left him grateful for second chances. "If I'm still around because Marty's changed," Carter said after the game, "then I'm glad he softened up."
The rest of this seemingly mismatched set should be similarly thankful. Of the 53 active Skins, 31—veteran castoffs and rookie long shots, mostly—are in their first year with the team, an astonishing number even in this rent-a-player era. That's all the more reason to be amazed that Washington is only a game behind the first-place Eagles in the NFC East with six to play. Not only do the Redskins have an easier schedule than Philly does down the stretch (including the Dallas Cowboys once, the Arizona Cardinals twice), but they also play four of their last six at home, while the Eagles travel four of the last six weeks.
"I knew—we all knew—we were a sleeping giant," said one key to the revival, second-year linebacker LaVar Arrington, last Saturday night. "We just didn't know when we'd wake up. Now that we have, who knows how far we'll go? Wouldn't it be some story if we made the Super Bowl?"
Whoa, big fella. First things first. Like: How in the world did Washington—the unhappiest NFL team in training camp, a team that lost its first five games by an average of 22 points—go from contentiousness to contention in five weeks? To find the answer, you've got to start in the dog days of July.
The veteran leaders, like cornerback Darrell Green and defensive end Bruce Smith, were used to moderate camps, during which they worked but were trusted to get in shape at their own pace. On the first day of this year's camp, though, they received a jolt: Each player took part in the Oklahoma Drill, a Schottenheimer staple borrowed from his days as a player with the Pittsburgh Steelers under Chuck Noll, in which a back, running behind a blocker, tries to get through a defender. Then, still early in camp, Schottenheimer corrected Green's coverage technique in front of the team, which the coach viewed as coaching, but the veterans saw as sacrilege. The 41-year-old Green, a seven-time All-Pro in his 19th season, is so respected in Washington that he was recently a guest at a White House state dinner honoring Mexico's president, Vicente Fox.
Practices were longer and more demanding than those of Schottenheimer's predecessor, Norv Turner. "It was not as difficult a camp as any I'd run in Kansas City," Schottenheimer says, "but it was clearly different from what they'd been accustomed to." Many players were put off by Schottenheimer's manner: He was the general; they were the privates. Late in camp, one veteran says, pockets of quiet hostility developed toward the coach in the locker room. "We were like kids who didn't want to eat their vegetables," Coleman says.