Five losses to five wins: five reasons

Football: There are five basic explanations for why the Redskins have gone from being the NFL's laughingstock to its hottest team.

November 29, 2001|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

ASHBURN, Va. - Beyond carrying his usual supply of swagger and youthful exuberance, Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington is toting around a fair but understandable amount of righteous indignation these days.

It's the kind of indignation one gets when he has been telling the world one thing and no one believes him. In this case, Arrington and his teammates were saying for weeks that the Redskins were not as bad as their 0-5 start would have indicated.

And now that the Redskins have not only shed the burden of being the NFL's laughingstock, but also have become the hottest team in the league with a five-game winning streak, Arrington, for one, isn't so willing to allow new passengers aboard the growing bandwagon that is following the team.

"I've been saying from Day One, I don't know when things are going to click in and I don't know when things are going to start working out, but they will," Arrington said. "I've been saying that all along. Now, all of a sudden, people are asking, `What's the turnaround?' We've been doing it. We've worked hard. This is reaping the benefit of working hard. It's no secret. We've been consistent. We've changed nothing. It's the same players."

There's some truth in Arrington's statement. Yes, these are the same players who started the season in what defensive end Kenard Lang not so indelicately described the "gutter," but their path back to the sidewalk hasn't simply been the byproduct of hard work.

In other words, some things happened. To wit:

1. Stephen Davis started to run like Stephen Davis.

More than any other factor guiding the Washington turnaround, the decision of coach Marty Schottenheimer and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye to go basic and to put the ball in the hands of Davis has been the most significant.

Davis, a two-time Pro Bowl rusher, was practically nonexistent early in the season, averaging only 15 carries a game in the Redskins' five losses, in large part because the Redskins had to abandon the run after falling behind by large margins to San Diego, Green Bay and Kansas City, their first three opponents.

However, in the 9-7 loss at Dallas, where the Redskins began to pick up momentum, Davis became a workhorse, carrying the ball 26 times for 99 yards. Since then, he has averaged nearly 27 carries for almost 105 yards a contest in Washington's five wins.

"What we realized after the game in New York [a week earlier] is, hey, we need to be able to run the ball, so that we can start to get a better ratio in terms of time of possession," Schottenheimer said. "This recent four or five weeks, we have been able to do that. That becomes very, very important. Your defense is relatively rested. When you develop the kind of cohesiveness that you have in the line, you should be able to run the ball."

2. The offensive line came together and got healthy.

The Redskins' offense may be the embodiment of the old cigarette commercial jingle that it's what's up front that counts. Though tackles Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen had been constants, the middle of the Washington line had been unsettled, with guard Ben Coleman suffering from an ailing knee, center Cory Raymer playing inconsistently and guard Dave Szott, who signed the first week of training camp, getting his bearings.

Since the line, along with tight ends Walter Rasby and Zeron Flemister, has solidified its play, Davis and third-down back Ki-Jana Carter have been able to hit open holes and quarterback Tony Banks has had time to throw. The improvement is reflected in the stark difference between total-offense numbers: 185 yards per game during the losing streak, 327 since.

"I don't know how many times I've said after looking at an offensive line that the whole is better than any one individual. They've become a product of the whole unit, and that's what's happened with us offensively," said Schottenheimer. "Up front, those five guys with Walter and Zeron have got it pretty well figured out as far as what it is we need to do. Now, obviously we need to go do it."

3. Improved defensive line play.

In five of their first six games, the Redskins allowed an opposition back to run for more than 100 yards, and in the sixth, a Giants rookie, Damon Washington, ran for 90 yards. Not so coincidentally, defensive ends Bruce Smith and Marco Coleman missed most of those games with shoulder and elbow ailments, respectively.

However, since the pair returned to the lineup four games ago, no runner has gone for more than 60 yards. With Smith and Coleman occupying the corners, Lang, who has bounced between end and tackle, has gone back to clogging the middle with Dan Wilkinson, making the run more difficult.

4. Unleashing LaVar.

Arrington, the second player chosen in last year's draft, had an up-and-down rookie season, chafing under former defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes' more restrictive schemes.

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