The Washington Redskins is an American football team that has been in deep depression longer than the Russian economy. Hopes were high this season when go-getting, brash new young owner Dan Snyder hired veteran coach Marty Schottenheimer of Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Brows fame to revive the team. But they started this season with the worst record in American football and in decades of history of their own fabled franchise -- five National Football League defeats in a row -- along with three more defeats in pre-season games. And they lost by astounding margins too.
But the Redskins have not only come back, they have come back big. On Sunday, they masterfully mangled the Philadelphia Eagles, who for the previous five weeks had confidently led the National Football Conference's Eastern division, by 13-3. The high-scoring Eagles could not manage a single touchdown against Washington's implacable defense.
From having the longest losing streak in the NFL, the Redskins have been transformed into the team with the longest winning streak. And they have become the first team in the history of national level American football to lose five league games in a row and then come back to win five straight. That is as improbable statistical achievement as Babe Ruth's epochal 60 home runs in a single season or Joe DiMaggio's still-to-be-matched hits in 56 consecutive big league baseball games.
The achievement must be particularly sweet for Schottenheimer, a tough, no-nonsense, plain-spoken coach of the old Vince Lombardi school. He has one of the finest winning records of any coach in NFL history, but he has never won a Super Bowl. And as the defeats piled up by usually horrifying margins, he quickly became the comic whipping post upon whom the media pundits of Washington were all too eager to vent out their spleen.
Schottenheimer is indeed old-fashioned. He believes in "basic" football. He believes in having offensive and defensive lines of big players superbly fit and trained till they dropped capable of mangling the opposition and making room for running backs who could carry the football through the holes in the opposing line that their teammates had opened up for them. No one ever called him an "offensive genius" as they acclaimed his predecessor as Redskins coach, Norbert "Norv" Turner. But unlike Turner, Schottenheimer had always shown he could actually win football games. Now the Redskins are doing it too.
They do not just win the easy ones. The last two they have won were exceptionally hard. On Nov. 18, they crunched the Denver Broncos in their new home Invesco field at Mile High Stadium that, as its name accurately describes, is 5,000 feet above sea level in horrendous storm conditions when the football slipped from everybody's hands.
The Broncos were accustomed to those conditions in their home ground -- only the Chicago Bears and the Buffalo Bills have ever enjoyed a more fearsome environmental home ground advantage -- but the Redskins still came out on top in a low-scoring game.
Plucking the Eagles' feathers in their own Veterans Stadium was a similar accomplishment. No team had looked to match them in the NFC East this year.
Turner's Redskins consistently lost to Eagles teams over the past decade. Eagles fans are among the most boisterous and intimidating in the entire National Football League. The team has one of the most formidable active, mobile quarterbacks in the game in Donovan McNabb. On Sunday, none of that counted for anything.
Above all else, the Redskins are now doing well for the same reason they did so badly. They are being coached by Schottenheimer and are being forced to play the game his -- very unfashionable -- way.
The catastrophically bad 1-8 losing record that the Redskins compiled in pre-season and early season games was not because Schottenheimer's unspectacular inelegant system of strong defense and cautious offense did not work, but because a team of players marinated through the 1990s in Turner's "kinder-gentler" management style and his "brilliant" "box of tricks" offensive ploys did not want it to work.
Turner seldom, if ever got mad. He played favorites and stuck with losers in key positions long after it was obvious to every Monday morning quarterback and beer-swilling couch potato that they were useless. He always claimed to take "the long term" and conned the octogenarian Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke and his faceless, ultra-cautious, liberal establishment-minded son John -- a true kindred spirit -- that he was building for the future. That enabled him to keep his job for one miserable losing season after another.
Under Turner, the Redskins achieved legendary status in their ability to pluck bizarre and humiliating defeat from the jaws of victory on literally dozens of occasions. This was in very large part because Turner, an offensive football coordinator of real ability, never seemed to grasp the importance of the "men at work" aspect of the game, the importance of getting serious players repeatedly drilled and trained to stupefaction until they could fulfill the most basic responsibilities and functions of the game correctly. His teams never even managed to get kickers who could perform the one function of reliably kicking a football accurately 35 to 40 yards over goalposts even while being paid several hundred thousand dollars a year to do just that.
In all the commentary over the Redskins' transformation from comic losers to cosmic winners under Schottenheimer, one crucial point has never been made. The Redskins lost because they were a spoiled and cosseted team, not used to the tough, demanding and unforgiving regimen that their new coach laid out for them. But once they realized he was there to stay and they buckled to his demands, they discovered that he was making them the winners they had never been before, and their pride and confidence soared as a result.
The Redskins' losing streak came precisely because Schottenheimer was squeezing their old soft and pampered ways out of his players. That losing streak was like an economy in deep recession after an era of giddy rises fueled by unsound speculative bubbles. When the party's over, the hangover is always long and painful. But, like the American economy after the short but sharp recessions of 1920 and 1981-82, the Redskins rebounded with a vigor never seen before once the old excess capacity and misplaced investment had been squeezed out by sound new policies imposed and maintained with an iron grip.
In this respect, Schottenheimer performed for his team and their fans the same role that Presidents Warren G. Harding and Ronald Reagan and their fiscal strategists -- Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon for Harding and Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker for Reagan -- did for the U.S. economy and the American people.
In an America facing the threat of serious recession and ongoing massive dangers from terrorists seeking to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction, the unfashionable values and unfamiliar achievements that Schottenheimer has brought to the Redskins deserve serious attention and respect.
Americans in the past two generations have gotten used to quick and easy successes, bought with little sacrifice and pain and without any patience. They have extolled "touchy-feely" values and turned up their noses at roll-up-the-sleeves, down-and-dirty styles of leadership and management.
That was why Schottenheimer never won the hearts and minds of media pundits in all his long, consistent years of achievement and solid success in Cleveland and Kansas City.
If there was one city in the United States where "spin," fashionable managerial philosophies and media sympathy could be counted upon to count for more than actually achieving anything, that city would have to be Washington.
But Washington is also a football-mad city weaned on three Super Bowl triumphs during the long, magnificent reign of Joe Gibbs as Redskins coach. And in the dark decade since Gibbs departed to conquer the world of NASCAR racing, it has been a city starved of even dignity, let alone simple success, on the football field.
By bringing winning and real, earned, deserved pride back to the Redskins, Schottenheimer may have done far more than turn around a long-lousy football team. He may even have taught the capital's rulers, legislators and pundits something about the real way to run America.