All four of these teams should be thinking about positioning for the 2021 draft. Yet a deep dive into league rules shows that someone among this lot will be crowned — get this — a champion. We’ll get to — sorry, have to — watch one of these lousy outfits in the playoffs.
Which brings us to the latest installment of how the Washington Football Team is handling the 2020 season. What to do: try to beat Dallas — which like Washington is 3-7 and trailing first-place Philadelphia by just half a game — on Thanksgiving. What not to do: allow the regression of everyone in the division to provide a false sense of Washington’s progress.
“I’m optimistic about a lot of things,” Coach Ron Rivera said Monday, a day after a victory over the Cincinnati Bengals and three days before the divisional showdown in Texas. “I’m optimistic about the direction we’re headed. Are we where we want to be? No. Not even close.”
Let that last part provide guidance. Washington is close to the top of the division standings. It is not close to being what Rivera said he’s here to build, which is a consistent winner — not week-to-week, but year-to-year.
What would an NFC East crown with, say, a 6-10 record mean? Certainly not the kind of celebration that makes fans proud to hang a banner and look optimistically toward the playoffs, right? And not an accomplishment that gives the feeling that the 2021 season will be markedly better.
What matters about Rivera’s first season isn’t what happens around Washington in the division. What matters about Rivera’s first season is what changes inside that building in Ashburn. To the roster. To the culture. To the expectations. To the reality.
It’s worth remembering what Rivera said on the day he was introduced as Washington’s coach — back on Jan. 2, when we had zero idea what 2020 would bring. He talked about his conversations with Daniel Snyder, the owner for whom he was signing up to work.
“I told him I didn’t want to go through a five-year rebuilding process because, quite honestly, I just don’t have the patience,” Rivera said then. “And from what I’ve read, neither does he. So we understand that.”
That can shed some light on why, with Washington 1-3 in early October, Rivera benched his second-year, first-round quarterback and pivoted into win-now mode. The division stunk. He’s impatient. Let’s go for it.
“Losing, it sucks, to be honest,” Rivera said Monday. “Sometimes it’s just miserable.”
Understood. But there’s a clearer message to deliver, one that would allow Rivera and his staff to simultaneously be anxious for wins and realistic about what this season is about. That would be to put blinders on about what’s going on with Philadelphia, Dallas or New York, and concentrate only on Ashburn.
Focusing on the process has become something of a cliche in sports. Know why? Because committing to a logical, proven formula — in scouting and evaluation, in preparation and scheme — is an effective way to build. So there’s an easy way to outline what Washington was doing this year: We want to see what players we have here who can be part of a consistent winner. Hand-in-hand with that: What holes are most glaring? Now we know. Let’s address them.
If, as the team went through that process, it gathered enough wins to take a terrible division, so be it. It’s a bonus, nothing more.
Now, it’s important to understand Rivera’s frame of reference regarding division titles — regardless of record. In 2014, Rivera’s Carolina Panthers won their last four games to take the (then-lousy) NFC South at 7-8-1. The result: a home playoff game against Arizona, which Carolina won. The following week, the Panthers trailed the Seahawks in Seattle 14-10 heading into the fourth quarter. A seemingly mediocre team had a chance to reach the NFC title game. That kind of experience can color the way you think about an opportunity.
“I will say just the fact that we’re not very good as a division right now, and we’re half a game off the lead,” Rivera said, “it’s reason for guys to come show up and prepare and get ready and see what happens.”
That’s reasonable. But that Carolina experience should also be considered in context. It’s not really analogous to what Washington is experiencing.
Carolina’s division title with a losing record came a year after the Panthers went 12-4 and earned a first-round bye in the playoffs and a year before they went 15-1 and reached the Super Bowl. A winning foundation was in place.
For Washington, that’s not the case. This franchise’s most recent winning season — at 8-7-1, by the slimmest of margins — was four years ago. Its most recent season with double-digit wins was eight years and three coaches ago. The most recent time it won as many as 11 games — which Rivera did three times with Carolina — was when Rivera was still a linebacker for the Chicago Bears, way back in 1991.
That’s the global picture of where this franchise remains, the view that makes it less important that these players are a half-game out of the division lead as December approaches and more important to understand how much work remains to make sure being 3-7 isn’t an annual occurrence.
Yes, the reality in the division is that there’s an opportunity — for some inherently flawed team. The Philadelphia Eagles sit atop the heap — at 3-6-1 — but are having an existential crisis about quarterback Carson Wentz, who leads the league in interceptions. The Cowboys are coming off a season-extending win but are without injured quarterback Dak Prescott and employ a defense that allows more points than any other team in the NFL. The New York Giants opened the year with five straight losses and qualify as the hot team in the group, given their past three weeks have been win, win and bye.
Washington? It heads into the Dallas game with the inspirational story of quarterback Alex Smith’s comeback as its most positive development. But any optimism that being a half-game out of the division lead brings has to be tempered by the reality of Rivera’s task ahead. It remains daunting. The division is there for the taking. But taking it wouldn’t mask the work Washington still faces.
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