ASHBURN, Va. — It’s been a long time since the Washington Redskins were really, really good. So long ago, in fact, that Chris Cooley has to talk to the franchise’s legends to get an idea of what it’s like.
“The sense for me of what a division title would be — in the sense for me of what a great playoff team would be — comes from guys around here that have done it,” said the veteran tight end, who has been with the Redskins since he was drafted in 2004.
“Comes from talking to Joe Theismann. Comes from talking to guys like Gary Clark. Joe Gibbs was a part of it.
“So I’m aware of, I guess, what it could be like, but I just don’t know what it will feel like, and I’m excited for that. I’m excited for our fan base. I’ve been here long enough that I’m a fan and I know how the people here feel, and we want to make them happy.”
The Redskins (3-1) on Sunday will play one of their biggest regular season games in the last 15 years.
It’s still October, but they’ve been in sole possession of first place in the NFC East this late since 1999, the last time they won the division.
They are hosting the rival Philadelphia Eagles (1-4) with a chance to leave the overhyped preseason favourites in the dust.
No team has recovered from a 1-5 start to win a division since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format in 1990.
“We understand this is a big game,” coach Mike Shanahan said, “a division game, NFC East. We understand our opportunity to separate ourselves within our division, but we also know that we’ve got to take care of business and do things the right way, play one of our best games because we’re playing a very, very talented team and a team that we know is desperate for a win.”
The 1999 Redskins, with a high-scoring offence led by quarterback Brad Johnson, won the only division title since Gibbs captured the last of the franchise’s three Super Bowl trophies at the end of the 1991 season.
1999 was notable because Dan Snyder completed his purchase of the Redskins shortly before training camp, and the division was clinched with an overtime win at San Francisco on Dec. 26.
Three days later, Snyder had two huge burgundy banners hung on the front facade of Redskins Park proclaiming his team as the “1999 NFC Eastern Division Champions.”
The Redskins have made two playoff appearances since then, in 2005 and 2007 during Gibbs’ second tenure, but those were two mediocre seasons turned around by December surges that salvaged wild card berths. The thought of Washington actually taking command of the NFC East is a foreign concept to nearly everyone now employed by the team.
“I’m excited to play a game,” Cooley said, “where we have a chance to really establish a lead in the division.”
The prospect is especially sweet given the projections that had the Redskins finishing in last place for the fourth straight season, with perhaps only modest improvement from last year’s 6-10 squad.
“As a coach, even as a player, you get a feeling that good things are happening,” said defensive co-ordinator Jim Haslett, recalling his memories from winning a division title as head coach of the New Orleans Saints in 2000. “It’s kind of a feeling within the organization. Guys work hard, and guys have fun being around one another. Guys enjoy going out to practice, and guys like being in the meeting rooms and that. I would say it’s night and day from last year to this year with this football team, that I feel. And I think the players probably feel the same way.”
Shanahan is still relatively new in town, taking over last year as the seventh head coach during the Snyder era, but he has been quick to understand the yearning for a return to the franchise’s glory days — or anything close to it.
“We’ve got a lot of tradition here,” Shanahan said. “The thing that I really enjoy about the fans is that they want stability, they want character, they want a football team that’s going to play hard week-in, week-out, and hopefully we can show some consistency to them.”
Should the Redskins win Sunday’s big game, they’d be setting themselves up for possibly bigger games in November and December. First place in October is an accomplishment best enjoyed in moderation.
“One lap, with a whole bunch of laps to go,” cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. “It really doesn’t mean too much for us.”
Notes: Cooley had his left knee drained again this week after another buildup of fluid. The knee has hindered him since early in training camp, and he has only seven catches this season. Cooley was limited in practice again Thursday, along with RB Tim Hightower (shoulder), WR Anthony Armstrong (hamstring) and CB Phillip Buchanon (back). … The Redskins had to practice in the rain for the second straight day, even as the construction of an indoor practice bubble continues at a snail’s pace because of the bad weather. Shanahan has made the bubble a running joke when opening his post-practice session with reporters. “Seattle doesn’t get this much rain,” he said.
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP