ASHBURN, Va. -- At the midpoint of the season, the Washington Redskins were on pace to become the worst pass defense in NFL history, the first to give up 5,000 yards through the air.
Needless to say, Jim Haslett's stock was a bit low at the time. When head coach Mike Shanahan was asked if there would be any midseason changes to his coaching staff, the defensive coordinator was at the top of the list.
Now Haslett is on another list, a possible candidate for one or more of the vacant head coaching jobs elsewhere in the league. The transformation he's led in the second half of the season has been so remarkable that he's been dubbed "the mad scientist" by defensive tackle Barry Cofield.
There are lots of reasons why the Redskins have won seven straight and will be hosting the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday in the NFC playoffs. Robert Griffin III, Alfred Morris, Pierre Garcon, Shanahan and others deserve their share of credit, but so does Haslett and his defense.
"I definitely think these game plans that Haz has come up with have been, if not the reason, a major reason why we've been so successful on defense in getting these wins and sealing these games," cornerback Josh Wilsons said. "Sometimes, you don't understand what a mad scientist is doing. But in the end, you look back on it and say, `Oh, that was an amazing call. I don't know how he knew to do that."'
Dealing with a depleted group -- starters Brian Orakpo, Adam Carriker and Brandon Meriweather out for the season with injuries and Tanard Jackson suspended indefinitely -- Haslett has come up with creative blitzes and coverages that opponents weren't expecting. He found ways to make the most out of the personnel he had. He challenged individual players such as cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who had an inconsistent season but was at his absolute best hounding Dez Bryant in the division-clinching win over the Dallas Cowboys.
Quarterbacks had a 95 passer rating against the Redskins in the first half of the season. It's been 78.2 in the second half. Points allowed dropped from 28.4 to 20.1. Washington is still ranked 30th in passing yards allowed, prompting Haslet on Thursday to say "Our passing stats stink," but the trend is in the right direction.
"Everybody loses players," Haslett said. "We just happened to lose a whole bunch at one time. And then we were kind of lost for a little while, trying to find our way. And then guys have stepped up and done a nice job playing. We worked a number of different combinations to get where we're at. It took us a little more time than we would have liked, but obviously it worked out for the best.”
The Redskins' recent play is a culmination of three years of adjustments after Shanahan hired Haslett and ordered a change in scheme from a 4-3 to a 3-4. That meant taking some lumps -- because the roster at the time consisted of older players and others who weren't suited to the new defense.
"It was as tough as it got," linebacker London Fletcher said. "We were the 31st ranked defense that first year we transitioned to the 3-4. I don't think anybody was happy about that.”
This is a case where patience pays off. Haslett said he came to the Redskins to win a Super Bowl, and he sees the goal as finally within reach. He's already been a head coach for two other NFL teams, and the thought of leaving Washington to try it again didn't seem to thrill him when the subject was broached Thursday.
"As a player and an ex-player and a coach, I've kind of done everything I wanted to do from an individual standpoint," Haslett said. "I made rookie of the year, I was coach of the year, all that stuff, so that stuff doesn't make a difference to me. I need to get a ring. That's one thing I don't have. Obviously I like the future of this club, so that kind of answers the question.”
Notes: LG Kory Lichtensteiger (sprained left ankle) and CB D.J. Johnson (sprained left knee) did not practice Thursday, while backup QB Kirk Cousins was back after missing one day with the flu. ... There were posters in the lockers of the Redskins special teams players Thursday that read: "Everyone has to catch the rabbit" and "Everyone get a hit on 33," referring to Seattle Pro Bowl KR Leon Washington. ... LB London Fletcher was selected as the NFL's defensive player of the month. He had three interceptions and two sacks in December, even though he was barely able to practice because of a sprained left ankle. ... The Redskins signed S Devin Holland to a reserve/futures contract. Holland played four games with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2011.