Reflecting on the 10 Defining Moments of the Redskins' 2012 Season

David Webber@@davidpwebber21Analyst IJanuary 9, 2013

Reflecting on the 10 Defining Moments of the Redskins' 2012 Season

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    For the better part of two decades, the Washington Redskins have been a team with few highlights and even fewer wins. With only three playoff wins since 1991, the city of Washington has had little to be excited about on the gridiron.

    After two unsuccessful seasons under head coach Mike Shanahan, 2012 began with an unusual buzz. The Redskins had sold the farm to acquire the second overall pick in the draft, taking Robert Griffin III and putting the hopes of the franchise on his shoulders. What commenced was nothing short of spectacular.

    Not only did Washington vault to the top of the NFC East; by the end of the year, RGIII and a host of young talent had brought hope to the burgundy and gold.

    For the first time in decades, Washington has something to look forward to. False hope and short term success has teased the fan base, but for a change, the next four or five years look bright for this team. 2012 ended in disappointment, but 2013 looks to be an entertaining year.

    There's no question that a host of moments from this year will stay fresh in the minds of Redskins fans for a long time to come. These are the moments that defined 2012, and will help define the Redskins as they push forward into 2013.

Shanahan’s “Evaluation” Remark

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    "Now you're playing to see who obviously is going to be on your football team for years to come. Now we get a chance to evaluate players and see where we’re at.”

    These were the words uttered by Mike Shanahan in a press conference following the Redskins’ humbling 21-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 9. The defeat left Washington at 3-6 with very little hope of making the playoffs, and Shanahan’s sentiments were undoubtedly shared by much of the fan base. Be that as it may, the coach’s job is to play out the string despite adversity, and the comments left players and fans feeling abandoned.

    Special teams standout Lorenzo Alexander was particularly critical of Shanahan, saying, “it’s hard when you see yourself in that type of position and your head coach is saying those types of things. It’s disappointing."

    It’s arguable whether or not Shanahan’s admission was the catalyst for Washington’s subsequent seven-game win streak. There’s no question that it lit a flame under the players, who had played well for the majority of the 3-6 start. Washingtonians will forever debate if Shanahan’s comments were inexcusable or a brilliant motivational strategy.

40 Points in Week 1

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    In 2011, Cam Newton burst onto the scene as a rookie and put together one of the finest debuts for a quarterback in NFL history, compiling 440 total yards and three total touchdowns.

    Newton’s rating of 110.4 that day was stellar, but Robert Griffin III did him one better and had a debut that was arguably the greatest of all time.

    In an electrifying showing, RGIII shredded the New Orleans Saints (admittedly porous) defense, completing 19 of 26 passes for 320 yards and two scores and adding 42 yards on the ground. The Redskins put up 40 points, something the burgundy and gold hadn’t accomplished since a 52-17 pasting of the 49ers in 2005. RGIII’s quarterback rating of 139.9 was also a rookie record.

    The offensive scheme was something Redskins fans had never seen before, an option-based attack run flawlessly by a freakishly athletic quarterback. The game set the tone for a team that averaged over 27 points per game and scored at least 30 points seven times. 

Kirk Cousins Leads the Way Against Baltimore

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    The D.C. area’s collective heartbeat stopped when RGIII was felled by a cringeworthy  blow to the knee by Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata. The Redskins needed a comeback to keep their playoff hopes alive, and the hopes of the franchise were now squarely on the shoulders of fourth-round pick Kirk Cousins, a rookie out of Michigan State.

    Cousins had seen some action earlier in the year against Atlanta, but tossed two interceptions on late drives that stunted a come-from-behind effort. Cousins was unfazed by the pressure against the Ravens, threading a beautiful 11-yard pass to Leonard Hankerson on a 2nd-and-20 and then an even prettier roll-out pass to Pierre Garcon for a touchdown.

    With the score in Baltimore’s favor at 28-26, Kyle Shanahan surprised everyone and called for Cousins to run a quarterback draw for the two-point conversion. The play was successful, and the Redskins went on to win the game 31-28 in overtime.

    It’s hard to fully describe the importance – and unlikely nature – of Cousins’ heroics. He was a rookie coming in cold off the bench, in the biggest moment of the entire year. That he handled it with such poise is simply sensational. It was arguably the most exciting game of the year and instantly gave Cousins “hero” status in Washington.

    Another important aspect of the game was the potential of Cousins as trade bait. As we saw with Matt Flynn in 2011, a single good game can propel a player to "must-have" status. After losing a bunch of draft picks to obtain RGIII, the Redskins could swing a deal to rebuild its draft haul by trading Cousins.

Thanksgiving Domination in Dallas

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    Few Redskins fans will ever forget the 35-7 demolition of Dallas in 2005, but that game’s proceedings paled in comparison to the first half of the Thanksgiving match-up with the Cowboys this year.

    After an uninspiring effort in the first quarter resulted in a 3-0 lead for the Pokes, the Redskins channeled the 1987 Super Bowl team—which dumped 35 points on Denver in the second quarter—and scored 28 unanswered points to take a 28-3 lead at the half.

    At the forefront of the offensive explosion was RGIII, who threw touchdowns of 68, 59 and six yards to three different receivers, the final score coming with just five seconds left in the half. It was a stunning outburst that left the Cowboys scrambling for answers.

    The fact that the Redskins could go into Dallas and demolish the Cowboys in a huge game on national television was something special. The game was tense at the end, as the ‘Skins defense was run ragged by 62 throws from Tony Romo, but it was never really in doubt.

    It was a game that solidified the Redskins as “alive” after their 3-6 start, and made the playoffs a reality. Most of all, it was a complete performance against a hated rival, one that sent shock waves through the NFL and kick-started an epic seven-game run to the playoffs.

RGIII’s Game-Clinching Run Against Minnesota

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    The game wasn’t as important as the late-season matchups that sent the Redskins to the playoffs, but it certainly left Redskins fans in awe of their rookie savior’s athletic ability.

    Washington held a 31-12 lead after Madieu Williams returned an interception 24 yards for a touchdown with 12:40 left in the game. But the Vikings battled back, riding two Christian Ponder touchdown passes to pull within 31-26 with just over three minutes remaining.

    Then RGIII took over.

    On a third and six, with the game still very much in the balance, he dropped back, looked for all the world as though he would throw, then brought the ball down and sprinted up the left sideline for a sizzling 76-yard touchdown.

    It was a play the likes of which have never been seen in Washington.

    It was a run so electrifying that it announced RGIII’s arrival to the NFL in the biggest way. That it came on a late-game drive made it all the more impressive. The 38-26 win was an exciting game, but it will be remembered for RGIII’s first truly incredible run in the NFL.

Rob Jackson’s INTs Against Cleveland and Dallas

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    Brian Orakpo’s injury early in the season seemed to signal that the outside linebacker position would be in flux for much of the season for the Redskins. Enter Rob Jackson, who played at a Pro Bowl level in Orakpo’s stead, racking up 37 tackles, four-and-a-half sacks, and four interceptions.

    Jackson burst onto the scene with an interception against the Bengals when he fell into the end zone for a touchdown, but his biggest impact came later in the season.

    In a critical game against the Cleveland Browns, Jackson made one of the plays of the year for Washington. After the Browns scored a touchdown late in the first half to take a 14-10 lead, Cleveland received the kickoff to start the third quarter and embarked on a potential game-deciding drive. On the second play of the drive, Jackson intercepted Cleveland quarterback Brandon Weeden, snagging a bullet over the middle. The play led to 14 unanswered points in the quarter for the Redskins.

    If not for that play, there’s no telling how the game would have proceeded.

    Jackson came up even bigger in Week 17. In the final game against Dallas, a game Washington needed to win in order to secure a playoff spot, Jackson made a huge interception with the Cowboys driving for a potential game-winning touchdown late in the game. The pick sealed the victory for Washington and ensured a playoff appearance.

    In a season full of injury and ineffectiveness on the defensive side of the ball, Rob Jackson was a definite bright spot for Jim Haslett’s much-maligned group.

The Final Week

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    The hard work and adversity of a six-game winning streak came to a head at FedEx Field in Week 17, in one of the biggest games in the history of the Redskins/Cowboys rivalry. The goal was simple—win the game and make the playoffs, or lose and spend January on the couch.

    Washington got off to a slow start but gained ground on Dallas on the legs of Alfred Morris. In the biggest game of his career, Morris was at his best, carrying a career high 33 times for 200 yards. His three touchdowns paved the way for a 28-18 victory that sent Washington to its first division title since 1999.

    It was unquestionably one of the finest moments in the history of the franchise.

    A successful season would have been deemed a disappointment had Washington been knocked out of the playoffs by its greatest rival. The Redskins were never fazed, shaking off a 7-0 deficit to thoroughly outplay the Cowboys.

    What this means for the future is that the Cowboys will definitely have a tough time containing this Redskins attack. Washington dumped 66 points on the Pokes in two games, and RGIII was pedestrian in one of those contests. Dallas had better figure something out, or the Redskins will own the Cowboys for the foreseeable future. 

A True Team Win in Cleveland

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    In the most important game of the year to that point, the Redskins' most important player was unavailable. After a gruesome knee injury against Baltimore sidelined RGIII for the game against Cleveland, Kirk Cousins stepped in to shoulder the load. The game got off to a troublesome start, but Cousins held his ground and threw for 329 yards.

    Cousins was remarkable, but the game spoke to a more promising trend—the Redskins were more than just their star quarterback.

    Alfred Morris pounded out 87 yards on 27 carries, Rob Jackson and London Fletcher came up with game-changing interceptions and the special teams unit played admirably.

    The 38-21 victory showed that the Redskins were not a one-trick pony and that they had really improved during the win streak. It wasn't just heart and hard work anymore, it was a group of players who came together and believed they could win. Even without their leader, they came out and put a beating on a Cleveland team that was on a bit of a hot streak itself.

    It was one of the most impressive victories in years and kept the team's playoff hopes alive.

A Crazy Finish in New York

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    The thrill-a-minute game in New York in Week 7 may have defined the first half of the season for the 2012 Redskins. RGIII led Washington on a superb late game drive, hitting Santana Moss for a perfect 30-yard strike with 1:32 remaining in the game. The Redskins offense came through once again, this time in the biggest spot.

    But the defense showed its colors as well, giving up a 77-yard score to Victor Cruz not 19 seconds later, a dagger into the heart of a previously rejuvenated Washington team. The touchdown led to an agonizing 27-23 loss, one that stung for weeks and weeks afterwards.

    It showed two things about the Redskins. One, the offense was revealing that it could piece together plays when it needed to. Two, the defense was proving that no lead was safe.

    While the defense performed better in the second half of the year, it was arguably the inconsistent performance in the first half that made the 7-0 run to end the year necessary.

RGIII's First and Second Injuries

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    Perhaps the most important issue of 2012 was the problem of RGIII's durability. The star quarterback missed significant time during the season, first because of a concussion against Atlanta and then due to a knee injury against Baltimore. The Redskins survived both scares, but the larger issue of RGIII's long-term health remains a point of contention.

    On the one hand, RGIII is a physical freak who can do things with a football that no quarterback has ever been able to do. On the other hand, those skills put him in more risky situations than a typical quarterback might find himself in.

    RGIII is a threat to break a big play on any given down, but he's an injury risk as well.

    The number one service a player can provide to his team is availability, and it remains to be seen whether RGIII can sustain a solid rate of playing time. With his injury against Seattle in the playoffs, there is even more doubt about whether he'll be healthy enough to start 2013.

    The 2012 season was memorable in many ways for the Redskins, but the future may depend on the health of the superstar under center.