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IMPROBABLE COMEBACK LIFTS REDSKINS TO 3-4 HEADING INTO BYE WEEK

IMPROBABLE COMEBACK LIFTS REDSKINS TO 3-4 HEADING INTO BYE WEEK

     When asked for pre-season predictions on the Redskins, I would say a record in the neighborhood of 6-10 or 7-9 should be attainable.

     I qualified each prediction by saying I simply wanted to see progress. I want to be convinced that the Redskins are heading in the direction of someday becoming a perennial contender in the NFL. It’s been a quarter-century since they held that distinction.  Not everything has been been rosy, but we’re witnessing a team that has made positive strides through the first seven games of the 2015 campaign and is emitting signs of a more complete squad.

      The Redskins are 3-4 in a shaky NFC East following Sunday’s improbable 31-30 win over Tampa Bay. That’s only one victory from last season’s total.

      In beating the Bucs, they overcame a 24-0 first-half deficit to record the largest comeback in team history. I know it was only Tampa Bay, which is now 2-4, but the win saved the Redskins’ season because being 2-5 with a game at the Patriots on the slate after the bye week would likely have meant falling into a crater.

      Plus, the Redskins with Kirk Cousins under center have learned how to win. In two of the three victories, the offense engineered game-winning, length-of the-field drives with the clock winding down, an 11-play, 90-yarder against the Eagles on Oct. 4 and an 11-play, 80-yarder against the Bucs.  Such feats have been rare in recent seasons, but this Redskins contingent has done it twice in less than a month.

      “This is who we are,” offensive tackle Morgan Moses told me in the Redskins’ jovial locker room. “This is our identity. It’s a credit to the players and coaches.”

      Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who missed most of the game after injuring his hand, had a sick feeling when he heard the Redskins trailed, 24-0.

      “When I came out of the locker room, I was thinking this is the worst way to go into the bye week,” Kerrigan said. “For us to come back like that, it’s awesome.”

      Morgan pointed out that the game-winning drive against the Eagles gave the offense confidence that it could be done again. It also helped to have a hot hand in Cousins. The Redskins’ quarterback had a terrible start to the game. He was sloppy and off target, and his fumble returned for a touchdown put the Redskins in a 24-0 hole midway through the second quarter.

      But he found his rhythm. After running for a touchdown before halftime and throwing 3-yard scoring passes to receiver Ryan Grant and tight end Jordan Reed in the third quarter, he had the Redskins back in the game. On the final 80-yard drive and facing a 30-24 deficit, “Captain Kirk” turned “Captain Comeback” completed 9 of 11 passes, including a 6-yarder to Reed with 25 seconds left. Dustin Hopkins’ conversion accounted for the one-point margin.

      Cousins ended up playing the best game of his career. He threw a career-high 33 completions, tying Jason Campbell’s single-game team record, with three TD throws, 317 passing yards with a 124.7 quarterback rating, one of the highest of his career. Just as importantly, he threw no interceptions. In fact, he has none in the Redskins’ three wins this season, with two in each of the four losses.

      Cousins, who also led a game-tying drive at the end of regulation against the Falcons two weeks ago, shouldn’t be immortalized when he wins and shouldn’t be lynched with he loses. But you have to see that his game has evolved for the better.  He just has to shed his inconsistencies, such as throwing interceptions at inopportune times.

      “Getting a win is a great feeling,” said Cousins, who’s completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. “You don’t want to sit on a loss in a bye week. That’s always tough. It was a step in the right direction. We’re going to need a lot more than three wins this year, but it was a good step, and we just have to keep learning and keep growing. There were certainly a number of plays that we want to learn from and improve upon.”

      Cousins is a different quarterback when he has Reed, who returned after missing two games due to a concussion, both losses. The 6-2, 243-pound Reed, a mismatch for any defense because of his speed and size, posted career-highs in catches (11) and touchdowns (two) against the Bucs. Cousins is at his best when using Reed as his security blanket, especially in the red zone. It will be a tremendous bonus if the oft-injured tight end can stay healthy for the rest of the season.

      The Redskins beat the Bucs on Homecoming Day, when the team honors its alumni. One former Redskins luminary, original Hog Jeff Bostic, was inducted into the Ring of Fame at FedExField at halftime.

      Redskins coach Jay Gruden said it was “huge” to pull off the biggest comeback in franchise history in front of many players who once wore the Burgundy and Gold.

      “I talked to our team last night about the alumni being here, and these guys paved the way for us being here, as athletes and as professional football players for the Washington Redskins,” Gruden said. “We want to make them proud and show them that all the work that they put into this organization did not go for naught. To come back and battle back and give them something to cheer about on their alumni weekend is an awesome feeling.”

      It’s a good thing the Redskins woke up when they did. Not only would their season have been over – in October no less – but the calls for Robert Griffin III or Colt McCoy to replace Cousins would have intensified, as would speculation about Gruden’s job security in D.C.

      The “Code Red” signal is off for now.