LANDOVER, Md. -- He is 60 years old, with 19 years of NFL head coaching experience, seven (now eight) playoff appearances and two Super Bowl titles. His whole act is rooted in the concept of having been there, done that, and proven all he needs to prove to anyone. And yet, after his Washington Redskins beat the Dallas Cowboys 28-18 on Sunday night to win the NFC East title in his third year as their coach, Mike Shanahan allowed this:
"No," he said, "I don't think I've ever been 3-6 before and won seven in a row."
Few have, but that is the achievement of Shanahan and the 2012 Redskins, who entered their bye week with a record of 3-6 but wake this morning as 10-6 champions of their division. The Redskins will, if you can believe it, host the Seattle Seahawks in a playoff game Sunday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. ET. That fact is a testament to the way Shanahan and his coaching staff have brought this team together during the second half of the season behind a brilliant rookie quarterback, an unstoppable skee-ball of a running back, and a defense that's buying in weekly to the belief that it can be better than its résumé.
"The credit goes to our head coach," said Redskins linebacker London Fletcher, echoing a sentiment seldom heard in NFL locker rooms but common in that of the Redskins over the past month. "Coach Shanahan, the way he laid out the plan for us, told us what we had to do, got us ready each and every week, this is a tribute to him. Our mentality was no different at 3-6 than it was at 9-6."
Back on June 13, Shanahan sat in his office in Ashburn, Va., and pointed to a spot on the wall near his office door. It's a spot that is concealed when the door is open, but with the door closed you can see the names of dozens of players no longer on the team. The names are on the same kinds of labels Shanahan uses to arrange the neatly organized depth chart he keeps on the same wall on the other side of a mahogany bookcase and much closer to his desk. But these names of former Redskins are thrown up there haphazardly, as though he just wanted them gone but didn't have the time to dispose of them properly.
"Just look," he said, pointing to the labels. "We've cut 150 players since I got here and only one of them is starting for another team -- Carlos Rogers in San Francisco. We've got a whole new team."
It was, for the first time since he took the job in 2010, a team Shanahan truly believed could compete. It was built around the quarterback, Robert Griffin III, for whom he traded three first-round picks and a second-round pick in April's draft. It featured Pierre Garcon, the wide receiver at whom they'd thrown big free-agent money in March because they thought he could grow into a true No. 1 wide receiver. It included the franchise left tackle, Trent Williams, who'd been Shanahan's first Redskins draft pick, but was still a question mark after the drug suspension that ended his 2011 season early. That day, a sixth-round rookie running back named Alfred Morris was fourth on the depth chart because Shanahan didn't know much about him yet. The defense had Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan as its bookend pass-rushers, and Brandon Meriweather as its starting strong safety.
That team didn't exactly hold together all year. Injuries took some of the key pieces, including a number of the running backs that were listed ahead of Morris. On the defensive side, Orakpo and starting defensive lineman Adam Carriker got hurt early. Meriweather hardly played at all. At 3-6 following the Week 9 loss to Carolina and Shanahan's widely debated "evaluation" news conference, the Redskins were reeling.
"We didn't have all the horses we expected to have coming into the season," nose tackle Barry Cofield said Sunday night. "And I think that shocked us a little bit."
"I thought we just had a lot of unfortunate bad luck in the first half of the season," center Will Montgomery said. "I was sitting there at 3-6 and thinking, 'Let's just rip off three in a row here and see what happens.'"
What happened was that they all came back fired up -- players and coaches alike. Griffin went into the bye week angry and promised things would get better. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett returned from the bye determined to start challenging his charges to learn something new and fairly complicated every week. The players started buying in, and Montgomery's three in a row turned into four and five and six and now seven as on-field evidence mounted that they could do amazing things.
Sunday night was the culmination, as the Cowboys were caught off guard by a Redskins' defense blitzing more than it had all year, and forgotten cornerback DeAngelo Hall handled one of the hottest receivers in the league in Dez Bryant one-on-one. They forced three Tony Romo interceptions, and a Redskins' offense that turned the ball over less than any team in the league this year just kept feeding Morris to the tune of 200 yards and three touchdowns.
"Defensively, we did something that we haven't done, and we thought we'd have a chance to keep them a little off-balance," Shanahan said. "If Tony knows what you're going to do, he's going to tear you apart."
Romo played like a guy who was caught off guard, and Jason Garrett got outcoached by a man with 16 years more experience. While Fletcher blitzed the A-gap and Rob Jackson blitzed from the outside and Cofield ate up blockers, the Cowboys fired off low-percentage sideline throws all game instead of picking apart the Redskins over the middle of the field. The Redskins flustered Romo into just enough bad throws and mistakes to keep their offense on the field churning out those rushing yards.
"Anytime our offense is on the field," said Jackson, who made the third and final Romo interception of the night, "I'm confident."
These Redskins are one seriously confident bunch, rolling into the playoffs on the longest winning streak of any NFC team and determined to maintain the same cool focus that has run that streak to seven.
"It's a four-game season," Shanahan told his team when this game was over and they all put on their black NFC East champion caps. "We worked hard to get here, but now there's only one team that's happy at the end of the season. And we want to be that team."
It is an accomplishment of coaching that these Redskins, who were 14-27 in Shanahan's first 41 games as their coach, are 7-0 in the past seven. It is an accomplishment of coaching that they believe him when he tells them they can be the only team that's happy at the end of this season, hoisting a Super Bowl trophy a little more than a month from now in New Orleans.
"We'll just keep taking them one at a time," Hall said. "And hopefully we can get to 11 straight."
Doubt them if you want, but here at the tail end of Mike Shanahan's third year in Washington, he has his Redskins buying into the idea that they're capable of anything.