LANDOVER, Md. -- The realities of their roster alone combat the notion that these are the same old Redskins, with all the inherent baggage that phrase implies. After all, head coach Mike Shanahan this summer kept only 27 players who were on Washington's Week 1 roster from a year ago, and a whopping 38 of his 53 players weren't even in the organization when he arrived in January 2010.
But those turnover statistics sound like mere supporting footnotes at this point, because you didn't have to look at a roster on Sunday to know that a lot has changed around here. You just had to watch the new-look Redskins play, which they did quite nicely, beating their division nemesis, the New York Giants, 28-14 in a game that held plenty of symbolic meaning for both teams on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
One week does not a successful season make, but Washington is off to an impressive start in 2011, and it has plenty to do with all the new faces in new places that dot the lineups on both sides of the ball. Some are rookies, and some are veterans, but so many of them found ways to contribute significantly on Sunday to a Redskins team that had lost nine of its past 10 meetings with its NFC East neighbor to the north.
"It was the first time in a while that we were able to play with the lead against this football team,'' said Redskins inside linebacker London Fletcher, one of the few veteran holdovers who's in position to know such things. "Because they're a different team when they're playing from behind.''
But the different team that took center stage at FedEx Field was in truth the hometown Redskins, and their fans really aren't all that accustomed to this kind of gritty and impressive comeback win, with Washington scoring the game's final 21 points after twice trailing by a touchdown in the first half. These were clearly not the Redskins of last year's Albert Haynesworth, Donovan McNabb, and Clinton Portis sideshow. This was a team that started painfully slow against the Giants, but steadied itself and found some winning mojo in the second half. And the stars of the day for the most part are refreshingly unencumbered with Washington's decade-long legacy of losing and underachievement. To wit:
• Rookie outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, the team's first-round pick, who scored his first touchdown since high school when he jumped and batted an Eli Manning pass in the air, then caught it and returned it 9 yards for the early third-quarter touchdown that gave Washington a lead it never relinquished. It was the kind of athletic play the Redskins had in mind when they moved the former Purdue star defensive end to an outside rush linebacker role. Kerrigan became the first Redskins rookie to record a pick-six since Champ Bailey in 1999.
• Rookie reserve nose tackle Chris Neild, an obscure seventh-round selection who was down in Mr. Irrelevant territory, had two of the Redskins' four sacks, plus forced a Manning fumble. Two-sack days by nose tackles aren't every-week occurrences in the NFL.
• Newly acquired veteran running back Tim Hightower, who gained a game-high 72 yards rushing on 25 tough carries, and added three receptions for 25 yards. Hightower's highlight was his first touchdown as a Redskin, from 1 yard out, tying the score at 7-7 early in the second quarter.
• And new-bodied tight end Fred Davis, he of the 12-pound offseason weight loss and heightened role in Shanahan's offense. Davis was a matchup headache all game long for the Giants, and he abused New York with five receptions for a career-high 105 yards, an eye-opening 21.0 average.
• Receiver Jabar Gaffney seems like he's been around the NFL forever, but he's a new Redskin, too, and against the Giants he added the dagger through New York's heart with a 4-yard touchdown pass with 5:04 left in the game. Gaffney finished with three catches for 54 yards and that score.
• Lastly, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the Redskins' newly christened starting quarterback, Rex Grossman. He started the game 0-for-4, looking very bad-Rexish, but finished very strongly, with a 21-of-34 passing day, for 305 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions (110.5 rating). It was the fourth 300-yard passing game of Grossman's rollercoaster of a nine-year NFL career, and it certainly vindicated Shanahan's decision to start him over John Beck in this game, after the two battled throughout the preseason.
Add it all up and Washington got a host of big plays and big moments turned in by some guys who either weren't around last season, or weren't key contributors. And while it's worth noting that the Giants played without starting defensive ends Justin Tuck (neck) and Osi Umenyiora (knee), the Redskins can point to not having safety LaRon Landry (hamstring) active, and starting a hobbled Chris Cooley (knee) at tight end.
The Redskins have a right to a sense of satisfaction this week because they have found themselves some playmakers, and they have built on their hopeful 3-1 preseason with an even more hopeful home-opening win against a team that has recently owned them. Washington got plays made on offense, defense and special teams on Sunday, with outside linebacker Brian Orakpo's fourth-quarter block of a 38-yard Lawrence Tynes field goal attempt protecting a 21-14 Redskins lead.
"All those new guys, they were all brought here for a reason,'' Fletcher said. "Whether it be (Kerrigan) in the first round, or (defensive end Stephen) Bowen and (nose tackle) Barry Cofield (in free agency). We had a lot of guys play great for us today.''
The game's most electrifying moment was easily Kerrigan's big play. First-round picks are supposed to have an instant impact, but it doesn't always work out. Despite playing a new position in the NFL, Kerrigan proved that the game was not too big for him, and his real accomplishment was reading the play accurately and letting his athletic skills take over.
"I knew it was a quick pass because the offensive lineman (Giants right tackle Kareem McKenzie) was trying to cut (block) me,'' Kerrigan said. "So I just had to play the cut block, and get my hands up, and fortunately the ball found my hands twice and I got in the end zone.''
Kerrigan's turn in the spotlight seemed to fire up the entire Redskins defense, and the record shows that New York went scoreless on its seven possessions in the second half, with just four first downs over that span. The Giants were just 1-of-10 on third downs in the game, and 0-for-6 in the second half.
"It was good to get some momentum going after that play, and I think that kind of set the tone for the rest of the second half,'' Kerrigan said. "What we talked about at halftime was we needed to come out with more swagger, fly around a little more and have little more fun. I think doing that really helped us and really helped carry us through the second half.
"In the second half, that's how we need to play every week. Week in and week out, and every day at practice. That's what we expect. We've got a lot of playmakers on this defense, and if we can play like we did in the second half, we can have a really good team. I definitely feel like I belong. The Redskins picked me to come in here and make plays for the defense. That's my goal here and that's what I'm trying to do.''
For a week at least, the newcomers made the difference between winning and losing in Washington. After last season's McNabb and Haynesworth debacles, what a difference a year seemingly has made in the second go-round of the Shanahan era. The bar of expectation has been raised by this win over a Giants team that went 10-6 last season and beat the Redskins twice, but so be it. Even that is something relatively new in Washington.
"It's great,'' Fletcher said of his team's controversy-free environment. "It's hard enough to beat the opponent on Sunday after a week of preparation, but when you have a distraction, whatever it is, and we created it ourselves, it takes away from the preparation for the game. To have those questions you have to answer.''
There are no such distractions to deal with this season in Washington. And the Redskins on Sunday started answering the question of what kind of team they're going to be in the best possible way: With an upset win. So far, the results are surprisingly good.
"Getting the season started off with a win like this is great,'' Davis said. "This is the start of something great for us, and it's only going to get better. We're going to keep working, and that's the good thing, it can still get better.''