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Matt Gagne
September 05, 2011
Scoff away, but the division's cellar dwellers believe in themselves
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September 05, 2011

4 Washington Redskins

Scoff away, but the division's cellar dwellers believe in themselves

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Some 250 stats can be used to measure an NFL team. But when it comes to starting a new season, there's still no stat for optimism. If there were, the Redskins, who haven't finished on top of their division since 1999 but are suddenly hopeful about winning a championship, would lead the league.

"I really feel like we could be a Super Bowl team," says running back Tim Hightower, who was acquired in a July trade after spending three seasons with the Cardinals, a Super Bowl team in 2008, his rookie year. "That's the expectation of the people in this locker room, and to me it's just a matter of time."

Said quarterback Rex Grossman to a local cable reporter during training camp: "We're just waiting in the wings, ready to take over the NFC East."

Most will dismiss Hightower and Grossman as simply a couple of Washington lobbyists who are out of touch with reality. The Redskins have had only two winning seasons—along with seven coaches—over the past 11 years. And just when they had seemingly turned a corner under first-year coach Mike Shanahan last season, they lost five of their last six, finishing 6--10 and in last place in the NFC East for the third year in a row.

So why are the Redskins so bullish on 2011? Credit Shanahan, who has restocked the locker room with players who are buying what he is selling. "Everything that we all want—the Pro Bowl, the Super Bowl, championships—he's been there and produced guys who've had it," Hightower says. "He's changing the culture here, and guys believe in him."

Of the 90 players who were on the roster midway through camp, only 24 were in Washington when Shanahan arrived in January 2010. Among those jettisoned shortly after the lockout was lifted this summer were defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and quarterback Donovan McNabb, who created what veteran linebacker London Fletcher called "distractions and drama" last year.

"If you can't do it the way [Shanahan] wants, then you have a problem. He proved that," says longtime Redskins wideout Santana Moss, who credits the big-name send-offs with galvanizing the team. "Everyone has taken on the head coach's identity."

Known as the Mastermind during his 14 seasons in Denver, where he won consecutive Super Bowls in the late 1990s, Shanahan has instituted changes in Washington as rudimentary as making players run from one drill to the next during practice, something veterans describe as being optional under former regimes. "He expects everyone to strive for perfection," Fletcher says. "He demands for you to be a professional."

Shanahan, also the executive vice president of football operations, set out in the off-season to fix the league's second-worst defense. Tackle Barry Cofield (formerly of the Giants) and end Stephen Bowen (Cowboys) were brought in to beef up the front line of defensive coordinator Jim Haslett's 3--4 scheme. Meanwhile cornerback Josh Wilson (Ravens) and safety O.J. Atogwe (Rams) were signed as free agents to fortify a secondary that gave up more yards (261.7 per game) than all but one team last season.

Hightower, who set career highs in carries (153) and yards (736) in 2010, and wideout Jabar Gaffney, who's also coming off a career-best season in which he caught 65 passes for 875 yards in Denver, should help inject life into an offense that averaged just 18.9 points per game (25th in the league) last season.

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