On Thanksgiving morning, as Washington Redskins coach Marty
Schottenheimer presided over a team meeting, he noticed that
backup running back Ki-Jana Carter had his eyes closed.
"Somebody better wake up Ki-Jana," Schottenheimer said, an edge
in his voice. Carter protested that he wasn't asleep, but the
damage had been done: The ironhanded coach had caught a backup
player resting his eyes in a meeting. Marginal players have been
whacked for less.
That afternoon Carter botched his assignment on a play in
practice, and a couple of teammates hooted him down. "Can't go
fallin' asleep in meetings!" one shouted. Players watched
Schottenheimer for his reaction. Surely Mount Marty would erupt
and make an example of Carter by castigating, fining or even
firing him, particularly after the my-way-or-the-highway
training camp Schottenheimer had run, one that had driven a
wedge between the coach and some veterans.
Schottenheimer, though, turned to Carter and told him not to
worry. This is what practice is for, he said. Just make sure you
don't do the same thing in the game on Sunday. One veteran,
defensive end Marco Coleman, noted later that this was clearly an
example of a changed coach. "I bet in the summer he would have
cut Ki-Jana for that," Coleman said.
Schottenheimer pondered his handling of those incidents last
Saturday night at the Redskins' hotel in Philadelphia, where the
next day this strangely determined team would continue the most
remarkable turnaround in recent NFL history: Washington's 13-3
victory over the Eagles put the Redskins--who had lost their first
five games--at the .500 mark. As he sat in the hotel, however,
Schottenheimer said he had not changed drastically from July to
November, and in truth the alterations he's made have been mostly
cosmetic. "Sometimes in coaching you've got to do not what the
players deserve," he said. "You've got to do what they need."
Lately, Schottenheimer has given new fortunes to a needy bunch.
Carter, unemployed all last season, is Washington's latest hero
of the week, following in the footsteps of such NFL heavyweights
as Tony Banks, Zeron Flemister, Kent Graham, Kevin Lockett and
Derrius Thompson. With franchise runner Stephen Davis
temporarily sidelined with a strained lower back on Sunday,
Carter scored the only touchdown--his first in two years--in a
game that set offensive football back several decades. His
five-yard second-quarter scamper left him grateful for second
chances. "If I'm still around because Marty's changed," Carter
said after the game, "then I'm glad he softened up."
The rest of this seemingly mismatched set should be similarly
thankful. Of the 53 active Skins, 31--veteran castoffs and
rookie long shots, mostly--are in their first year with the
team, an astonishing number even in this rent-a-player era.
That's all the more reason to be amazed that Washington is only
a game behind the first-place Eagles in the NFC East with six to
play. Not only do the Redskins have an easier schedule than
Philly does down the stretch (including the Dallas Cowboys once,
the Arizona Cardinals twice), but they also play four of their
last six at home, while the Eagles travel four of the last six
"I knew--we all knew--we were a sleeping giant," said one key to
the revival, second-year linebacker LaVar Arrington, last
Saturday night. "We just didn't know when we'd wake up. Now that
we have, who knows how far we'll go? Wouldn't it be some story
if we made the Super Bowl?"
Whoa, big fella. First things first. Like: How in the world did
Washington--the unhappiest NFL team in training camp, a team
that lost its first five games by an average of 22 points--go
from contentiousness to contention in five weeks? To find the
answer, you've got to start in the dog days of July.
The veteran leaders, like cornerback Darrell Green and defensive
end Bruce Smith, were used to moderate camps, during which they
worked but were trusted to get in shape at their own pace. On
the first day of this year's camp, though, they received a jolt:
Each player took part in the Oklahoma Drill, a Schottenheimer
staple borrowed from his days as a player with the Pittsburgh
Steelers under Chuck Noll, in which a back, running behind a
blocker, tries to get through a defender. Then, still early in
camp, Schottenheimer corrected Green's coverage technique in
front of the team, which the coach viewed as coaching, but the
veterans saw as sacrilege. The 41-year-old Green, a seven-time
All-Pro in his 19th season, is so respected in Washington that
he was recently a guest at a White House state dinner honoring
Mexico's president, Vicente Fox.
Practices were longer and more demanding than those of
Schottenheimer's predecessor, Norv Turner. "It was not as
difficult a camp as any I'd run in Kansas City," Schottenheimer
says, "but it was clearly different from what they'd been
accustomed to." Many players were put off by Schottenheimer's
manner: He was the general; they were the privates. Late in
camp, one veteran says, pockets of quiet hostility developed
toward the coach in the locker room. "We were like kids who
didn't want to eat their vegetables," Coleman says.
After 27-, 37- and 32-point losses to open the season, the
players and Schottenheimer met to clear the air. The coach threw
them a few bones. For example, some veterans, instead of having
to report early in the morning on practice days to lift weights,
could sleep an extra hour or so and lift after practice. "The
noose kind of loosened a little bit," Smith says. More
important, Schottenheimer listened. He was smart enough not to
be Les Steckel. As Green said after that meeting, "It's a shame
it took us this long to get to know Marty."
"The mistake I made was this," says Schottenheimer. "I told
them, 'This is what I want to do. Let's go do it.' I never
explained my reasons. As players, they were entitled to that. I
dropped the ball there."
That's not the only ball he dropped. Schottenheimer was
shortsighted when he went to training camp with two scrubs (Todd
Husak and Sage Rosenfels) behind the unreliable Jeff George at
quarterback. The lack of a veteran backup last spring and
summer--Banks didn't fall into the Redskins' lap until Dallas
cut him in August, too late to learn the offensive system from
the ground up--paralyzed the offense. Schottenheimer dumped
George after two games for consistently tinkering with plays the
coaches had called. The discombobulation led to offensive
futility; Washington scored two touchdowns in the first five
weeks. The team's fifth loss, a 9-7 stinker at previously
winless Dallas, was the capper.
Schottenheimer, however, was unbowed. "I've been coaching in the
NFL since 1977," says offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, "and I've
never seen anything like the resolve he showed then. We were on a
respirator, but Marty told the coaching staff, 'Just continue to
instruct and coach. We're close. It will come.'"
But when? The next week, the Carolina Panthers, winners of only
one game, led the Redskins 14-0 with 11 minutes remaining and
were driving for more. Arrington had missed the second quarter
with a concussion and a stinger that left him, momentarily,
without feeling in his left arm. Nonetheless, he put himself
back into the game in the third quarter, and when, with the ball
on the Washington 28, Panthers quarterback Chris Weinke faded
back to pass early in the fourth, Arrington lay in wait. "He
didn't respect my speed," Arrington says, "and he floated one up
there." Arrington picked off the Weinke duck and sprinted 67
yards for a touchdown. Washington won 17-14 in overtime. "They
say that's the play that got us started," Arrington says.
The next week, as the Redskins nursed a 17-14 lead over the New
York Giants, the third and fourth wideouts combined for the
clinching points, with Lockett taking a lateral and floating a
31-yard touchdown pass to Thompson. A week later Davis mashed
the Seattle Seahawks for 142 yards on 32 carries in a 27-14 win.
Now this was Martyball--45 rushes, more than 39 minutes of
Against the Broncos in Denver following a bye week, Banks went
down with a concussion late in the first half. In came Graham,
who'd taken all of 10 snaps with the first-team offense since
being imported to fill George's roster spot. Battling the
Broncos, the wind and the sleet, Graham led two fourth-quarter
touchdown drives, finding a virtual stranger, third-string tight
end Flemister, for the touchdown pass with less than three
minutes to go that gave the Redskins a 17-10 win. "I didn't know
his first name," Graham said afterward. "Is it Zeron? I just
call him Flem." Graham-to-Flemister isn't exactly
Theismann-to-Monk, but it might find a place in Washington lore
before season's end.
Now the acid test. An Eagles victory at Veterans Stadium would
give Philadelphia a three-game lead in the loss column with six
to play, and the Philly fans were out for blood. Before and
during the game, one leather-lung behind the Redskins' bench kept
reminding Carter in profane terms that he was "a bust." There was
some truth to that. The Bengals' first choice in the 1995 draft,
Carter never realized his potential in Cincinnati because of two
major knee injuries and a case of fumble-itis. He flunked tryouts
with the Detroit Lions, the Green Bay Packers, the Eagles and the
Redskins in 2000 and began to ponder life after football. Still,
Schottenheimer brought him to camp, and Carter looked lithe on
the field and well-cut in the weight room, and he won the job as
That's how he wound up on the field early in the second quarter
on Sunday when Davis's back stiffened. On second-and-goal from
the Philadelphia five, Carter took a handoff from Banks and was
greeted at the eight by Eagles tackle Hollis Thomas. "I don't
know how," Carter said, "but I made him miss." He ran through a
gaping hole to score the game's first points--the only ones
Washington would need.
After that, the Redskins bled the clock for the game's last 44
minutes while making life miserable for the Philadelphia offense.
Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb is supposed to be the next
Brett Favre, but he looked like the next Stoney Case, completing
15 of 27 for 92 yards. Washington defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson
was a force, consistently collapsing the pocket. Arrington,
playing the spy, held the mobile McNabb to three rushes for 39
yards. Arrington also got the save.
With 9:30 to play and trailing 10-3, Philadelphia had its last
gasp, fourth-and-two-feet from the Skins' 35. The Eagles sent
222-pound blaster Correll Buckhalter behind 349-pound left
tackle Tra Thomas. Surely they could make 24 inches with 571
pounds of thrust, couldn't they? Arrington threw his 246 pounds
at the thighs of Thomas, driving under him and diving at the
pins of Buckhalter. No gain. Not an inch. What a play.
When you talk about the top young linebackers in the game, you
cannot mention Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis unless you mention
this kid, too. "The veterans on this defense, like Bruce Smith,
tell me, 'I need you to be a man,'" Arrington said after the
game. "So I never want them to look at me, ever, and say I
wasn't a man."
Don't believe for a minute that Schottenheimer has done a 180.
He still believes in micromanaging. Employees and players were
assigned to specific cars on the manifest for the eight-car
train trip north to Philadelphia last Saturday. "If I
compromised my basic philosophy about working with a plan to
achieve your goals, that would invalidate everything we'd done
to this point," he said that night. It's also a misconception
that 53 guys hated the structure and the work and the man in
September. Half the team, probably, had major beefs with
Schottenheimer. Half simply shut up and practiced hard.
Arrington was one of the latter. He called it "a joy" to play
for Schottenheimer. So it seemed right that the last two
Redskins out of the dank locker room in the bowels of the Vet on
Sunday night were these two gym rats. "You stay with me,"
Schottenheimer said. "Right by my side."
"Coach," Arrington said, grinning the winner's grin, "we've got
much more to do."
coach, "then I'm glad he softened up."
Arrington. "We just didn't know when we'd wake up."