Rebuilding is a word that has been used liberally the past several months. Perhaps Sunday’s 23-20 defeat would be the perfect time for Washington Coach Ron Rivera to end this farce of trying to win what might be the most hapless division in modern NFL history and focus on next year and beyond. Maybe rebuilding should be all Washington thinks about the rest of this season.
And yet the division chase Rivera has pushed for the past several weeks still doesn’t feel like a joke. Not after Sunday’s frenetic second-half comeback. Not after nearly turning around a 20-3 halftime deficit with two late possessions to try to win the game. Not in an NFC East in which no one seems capable of pulling away.
“The division is still up for grabs,” Rivera said after Sunday’s loss. “We’ll see what happens.”
The difference between this Washington team and those that have lost in recent seasons is that this one seems to fight. Too often in the past couple of years, the game was over when the other team took the lead, whether it was a first-quarter field goal or a late-game touchdown catch. For some reason, this team seems different.
“We’ve bought in,” cornerback Jimmy Moreland said.
The “culture” Rivera has talked about endlessly has started to settle in around this team. Players and coaches have been talking about it a lot. They describe practices that are crisp, focused and competitive. They say everyone is grasping the principles Rivera has preached. And despite not having enough talent in the right places to have a winning record, Washington has fought enough in valiant second-half comebacks to have three defeats that will linger in their minds as afternoons that could have been theirs if only they had not committed foolish turnovers or missed obvious plays.
While the two Giants losses and September’s loss at Cleveland are games people around this team believe it should have won, they glare as blown opportunities in the 2-6 start to Rivera’s Washington career. But they also glow just enough hope for a struggling team that it’s too soon to say Washington won’t make the same late-season run so many of Rivera’s teams did when he coached the Carolina Panthers.
“For us, as a team, we know we’re right there,” linebacker Jon Bostic said. “We can’t keep talking about it. … We are practicing hard. We love the way we’re practicing. We just have to make those plays in the game when the time comes.”
Sunday started poorly for Washington with two lost fumbles that essentially gave New York the ball for the game’s first six minutes and left Washington down 10-0. Then quarterback Kyle Allen went down with a dislocated ankle and rolled off the field on a cart, and pretty much everything seemed hopeless.
Still, Washington fought back. It has fought back a lot this year, enough that many around the team seem to believe that if they can just figure out how to stop making early mistakes they will start winning games.
Late Sunday afternoon, Rivera stood behind a lectern in a room outside the Washington locker room, looked into a television screen filled with the faces of reporters at his postgame news conference and exhaled deeply. He was frustrated, and yet he wasn’t.
There was a lesson in Sunday’s loss, he said.
“First, we’ll learn you can’t spot teams 20 points in a half and expect to give yourself a fair chance to win,” he continued. “But the way they came back and played in the second half was indicative of who this football team can be, in my opinion.”
At some point Washington’s players should be able to fix the mistakes that have put them behind on too many afternoons this fall. At some point, the perfection they say is coming will appear and the results should change. The second-half battles have been too fierce to suggest that winning won’t follow eventually.
On Sunday, Smith gave hope that maybe he actually can play again, that the awkwardness and inability to escape the Rams’ pass rush in his only other game this year might be an anomaly. He threw for 325 yards in a little more than three quarters against the Giants — more than he had in any of the nine full games he played in 2018 before the broken leg and infection and 17 surgeries that seemed certain to end his career.
When Allen went down Sunday, it was at nearly the exact same spot on the FedEx Field grass where Smith had been hurt almost two years before. Smith said he tried not to think about that afternoon much as he prepared to take over the offense. Washington was down already, and it would have to come back.
Together, the players almost succeeded — showing just enough fight to say Washington can’t give up hope in the wretched NFC East. At least not yet.