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Five losses to five wins: five reasons

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ASHBURN, Va. - Beyond carrying his usual supply of swagger and youthful exuberance, Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington is toting around a fair but understandable amount of righteous indignation these days.

It's the kind of indignation one gets when he has been telling the world one thing and no one believes him. In this case, Arrington and his teammates were saying for weeks that the Redskins were not as bad as their 0-5 start would have indicated.

And now that the Redskins have not only shed the burden of being the NFL's laughingstock, but also have become the hottest team in the league with a five-game winning streak, Arrington, for one, isn't so willing to allow new passengers aboard the growing bandwagon that is following the team.

"I've been saying from Day One, I don't know when things are going to click in and I don't know when things are going to start working out, but they will," Arrington said. "I've been saying that all along. Now, all of a sudden, people are asking, 'What's the turnaround?' We've been doing it. We've worked hard. This is reaping the benefit of working hard. It's no secret. We've been consistent. We've changed nothing. It's the same players."

There's some truth in Arrington's statement. Yes, these are the same players who started the season in what defensive end Kenard Lang not so indelicately described the "gutter," but their path back to the sidewalk hasn't simply been the byproduct of hard work.

In other words, some things happened. To wit:

1. Stephen Davis started to run like Stephen Davis.

More than any other factor guiding the Washington turnaround, the decision of coach Marty Schottenheimer and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye to go basic and to put the ball in the hands of Davis has been the most significant.

Davis, a two-time Pro Bowl rusher, was practically nonexistent early in the season, averaging only 15 carries a game in the Redskins' five losses, in large part because the Redskins had to abandon the run after falling behind by large margins to San Diego, Green Bay and Kansas City, their first three opponents.

However, in the 9-7 loss at Dallas, where the Redskins began to pick up momentum, Davis became a workhorse, carrying the ball 26 times for 99 yards. Since then, he has averaged nearly 27 carries for almost 105 yards a contest in Washington's five wins.

"What we realized after the game in New York [a week earlier] is, hey, we need to be able to run the ball, so that we can start to get a better ratio in terms of time of possession," Schottenheimer said. "This recent four or five weeks, we have been able to do that. That becomes very, very important. Your defense is relatively rested. When you develop the kind of cohesiveness that you have in the line, you should be able to run the ball."

2. The offensive line came together and got healthy.

The Redskins' offense may be the embodiment of the old cigarette commercial jingle that it's what's up front that counts. Though tackles Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen had been constants, the middle of the Washington line had been unsettled, with guard Ben Coleman suffering from an ailing knee, center Cory Raymer playing inconsistently and guard Dave Szott, who signed the first week of training camp, getting his bearings.

Since the line, along with tight ends Walter Rasby and Zeron Flemister, has solidified its play, Davis and third-down back Ki-Jana Carter have been able to hit open holes and quarterback Tony Banks has had time to throw. The improvement is reflected in the stark difference between total-offense numbers: 185 yards per game during the losing streak, 327 since.

"I don't know how many times I've said after looking at an offensive line that the whole is better than any one individual. They've become a product of the whole unit, and that's what's happened with us offensively," said Schottenheimer. "Up front, those five guys with Walter and Zeron have got it pretty well figured out as far as what it is we need to do. Now, obviously we need to go do it."

3. Improved defensive line play.

In five of their first six games, the Redskins allowed an opposition back to run for more than 100 yards, and in the sixth, a Giants rookie, Damon Washington, ran for 90 yards. Not so coincidentally, defensive ends Bruce Smith and Marco Coleman missed most of those games with shoulder and elbow ailments, respectively.

However, since the pair returned to the lineup four games ago, no runner has gone for more than 60 yards. With Smith and Coleman occupying the corners, Lang, who has bounced between end and tackle, has gone back to clogging the middle with Dan Wilkinson, making the run more difficult.

4. Unleashing LaVar.

Arrington, the second player chosen in last year's draft, had an up-and-down rookie season, chafing under former defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes' more restrictive schemes.

However, Schottenheimer and his brother, Kurt, the team's defensive coordinator, have turned Arrington loose. His fourth-quarter interception of Carolina quarterback Chris Weinke and touchdown return may be the season's turning point, as the Redskins came back to beat the Panthers in overtime for their first win and haven't looked back.

5. Following the new leader.

Schottenheimer, whose reputation for conservatism is well-known, acknowledged after the Monday night debacle in Green Bay in Week 2 that he and Jeff George could not co-exist, so he cut George and put his trust in Tony Banks, who was bounced by Dallas in training camp.

Though Banks allegedly shared the same penchant for the long ball that George did, the former Ravens quarterback has been willing to do things Schottenheimer's way and play it close to the vest, with more short and intermediate passing than the deep stuff.

And Banks, who got the tag of turning the ball over at the worst possible time both in Baltimore and in St. Louis, has been ultra-cautious with the ball, throwing just two interceptions during the five-game winning streak. Overall, the Redskins have cut down turnovers from 14 committed in their five losses to six in their five wins.

"I think it's probably as much as anything his acceptance of the importance of that [taking care of the ball]," said Schottenheimer. "We all have a certain number of things that we can concentrate and focus on at one time, and I think that Tony has put that at the forefront, taking care of the football. We have preached that for a long time, and he hears us loud and clearly."

Still, with all the changes, the Redskins have big challenges ahead, including another meeting with the Eagles, as well as games with the resurgent Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints.

And, even with a streak that makes them the first NFL team to win five straight after losing their first five, the Redskins are, as Banks noted after Sunday, merely back to "mediocrity," at .500.

"I don't think we're a mediocre team, but 5-5 is mediocrity. But there's still a lot of football to be played," said Banks.

Surprisingly to almost everyone outside the Redskins' locker room, the football that is left will actually be meaningful.

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