Ten minutes after Sunday’s gut-wrenching 25-19 overtime loss to the Falcons, the visitors’ locker room underneath the Georgia Dome was virtually silent. Some Redskins sat motionless, staring blankly ahead. A few slowly unwrapped tape from their wrists and ankles. Others talked among themselves in hushed tones, lamenting the opportunity they had just allowed to slip.
They were crushed. They were disappointed. They were angry.
And, if you’re a Redskins fan, that should make you smile.
Because the mood hasn’t always been so solemn in Washington’s locker room following a tough loss. Do you remember the reports last October about the “jocularity” in the locker room after the Redskins fell to the defending champion Seahawks, 27-17, on Monday Night Football? I’m not really interested in revisiting that touchy subject—players and coaches later insisted that the postgame laughter was exaggerated—but I can tell you that I was present after both contests. And I can also tell you this: the vibe Sunday was very different, as were the words the players and coaches used to describe the defeat.
“We are beyond that,” Coach Jay Gruden said when I asked him if there were any positives to be gleaned from pushing an undefeated opponent to its limit, on their home turf. “They played very hard. We played very hard. It came down to a close game; you don’t get any moral victories in the NFL.”
Said Terrance Knighton: “We have the mindset. It’s just that in crunch time everyone in here has to think, ‘I’m going to make the play to win the game.’ This loss hurts.”
So what’s changed over the past year? A lot, actually.
New GM Scot McCloughan overhauled the roster during the offseason, signing and drafting new starters on both sides of the ball.
Among those additions, three stand out to me: Knighton, Dashon Goldson and Chris Culliver.
Knighton knows a little about leadership as well as a winning culture. In his two seasons in Denver, ‘Pot Roast’ watched Peyton Manning lead the Broncos to 13-win and 12-win campaigns. Knighton has also instituted an unofficial ban on locker room discussion about how things were done in Washington in the past. Because this, as he often says, is a different team that last year's four-win outfit.
Goldson, on the other hand, was elected by his teammates as captain of the defense after just a few months at Redskins Park. He’s a pro’s pro. And, like Knighton, he’s been exposed to a winning atmosphere. He’s played for conference championships. He’s played in a Super Bowl. I learned a lot about his Goldson’s thought process earlier this season when I asked him if an opposing offense “worried” him. He shot me a stern glance. “Worried?” he asked, taking umbrage with my choice of words.
Culliver, meanwhile, has edge about him. The same way Pierre Garcon has an edge about him. Culliver plays hard. He practices hard. He expects a lot from himself. Against the Eagles, he competed on one leg, hobbled by a knee injury that didn’t allow him to practice the previous few days. Sure, he got burned a couple of times. But toughness like that does not go overlooked by your teammates.
Changing the culture of an organization that has grown too accustomed to losing doesn’t happen overnight. And I’m not saying that the Redskins have all of sudden become the Packers or the Broncos or the Patriots, not by a long shot.
But it's hard to ignore the feeling that something is afoot.
Last week, I wrote about how McCloughan has started to bring a measure of accountability to Redskins Park by benching players who don’t perform and cutting others who show they are unable to.
Of course, accountability and a locker room internalizing a tough loss are not the same. But the two are connected in that they’re traits shared by healthy, successful organizations.
And it seems to me there's growing evidence that both are starting to take hold in Ashburn.