If Washington wins only one of those three, it would be 5-11 and probably lose a head-to-head tiebreaker to the New York Giants or be edged by the 5-10-1 Eagles — unless one of a hundred other things happen.
It has been said, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.” But probably not by a modern pro sports fan.
These are not good days to expect praise for winning the “NFC Least” or to enjoy a team that constantly unearths new useful pieces but, in the process, wins too often to get a high draft pick that nets a quarterback of the future. We live in a sports era that obsesses on parades or at least the fantasy of such feats arriving soon. When we get once-in-a-generation joy, such as the 2017-18 Capitals and 2019 Nationals, those emotions do indeed dwarf all other years.
But the other years, at least the best parts of them, deserve to be measured and appreciated in the scales of what’s possible. Yet it’s a rare team in a major market such as D.C. that can frame its present and its progress in terms that are an iota less than grandiose.
For the moment, let’s flip that around. Let’s go old-fashioned and appreciate a 4-7 team coached by a man who just finished months of cancer treatment. Let’s encourage those who still enjoy the Washington Football Team — yeah, sure, we’ve compartmentalized the problem of knowing who owns the squad — to have fun without feeling foolish for investing in a, well, losing team.
The idea that a team predicted to go 3-13 (again) might improve to 6-10 — and win its division — should be viewed as a total hoot, not an eyesore, and a goofy, glad thing to enjoy with no questions asked.
The reality that Terry McLaurin, on pace for 100 catches and 1,401 yards, is already a top-five NFL wide receiver in his second season should cause delight. What have we here? The only Washington players to top 1,400 receiving yards are Santana Moss (1,483 in 2005) and Bobby Mitchell (1,436 in 1963).
Entering the 41-16 win over Dallas on Thanksgiving, in which he had seven catches for 92 yards, McLaurin was third among NFL wide receivers in yards, behind only DeAndre Hopkins and Stefon Diggs. But while Hopkins and McLaurin only have one drop apiece, Diggs has five.
McLaurin leads all wide receivers in yards after the catch (447). For raw speed, leaping ability, great hands, shiftiness and “Scary Terry” easy-escape acceleration, combined with the toughness to run slants over the middle and tunnel screens through traffic, there may not be a more complete package — and he’s still in his second year.
McLaurin also made the pivotal play Thursday by running down Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith at the Washington 4-yard line, preventing a pick-six that would have tied the score at 20. McLaurin spotted Smith seven yards, brushed off a blocker and still let Smith run only 44 yards before diving to drop him. Washington allowed only a field goal, then scored the final 21 points.
Another weapon, rookie running back Antonio Gibson, has emerged to allow quarterback Alex Smith to be an effective game manager. That description once was damning with faint praise but not anymore. After his 17-surgery leg injury of 2018, it’s a sports miracle that he can manage to walk, much less manage a game — especially with lost mobility and McLaurin as his only notable receiver.
Hence the joy of Gibson, a third-round draft pick who seems like an inspired steal. As a slot receiver at Memphis who seldom carried the ball except for jet sweeps and reverses, he is on track for 1,277 rushing-plus-receiving yards and has 11 touchdowns in 11 games.
Gibson’s sweeps and slashes show off speed that’s just a blink behind McLaurin’s, but at 228 pounds, he smashes, too. How did this guy get to the 66th pick? On his first untouched rushing score on Thanksgiving, he dusted off an imaginary vest in the end zone. After his second, he waved goodbye as he crossed the goal line. The last time, he just inconspicuously counted on his fingers: 1-2-3.
In a league in which everyone wants to unearth the next multithreat running back like Christian McCaffrey, has Ron Rivera, who developed McCaffrey in Carolina, found a mighty nice variation in Washington? With more snaps and more catches, we will see what Washington has.
Once upon a time, the emergence of Montez Sweat as a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive end, leading the third-highest sack unit in football, would be a pleasure sufficient unto itself. His 15-yard run for a pick-six Thursday, after deflecting an Andy Dalton pass to himself, was just his latest highlight as he’s on track to increase all of his 2019 totals, most by a lot.
Washington has gotten its 36 sacks thanks mainly to a four-man rush getting only limited blitz help, with Sweat (6.0), Ryan Kerrigan (5.5), Tim Settle (5.0) and the improving Chase Young (4.5) the team leaders. All that pressure is a key to Washington entering the week No. 1 in the league in pass defense. It allows too many bombs, such as the 54-yard touchdown to Amari Cooper on Thursday, but run defense is where Washington should improve.
So how can a team with several strong elements still seem so vulnerable? In part, it’s because the season’s hero — Smith, who has brought competence, confidence and an ability to use the whole playbook to the offense — is also that unit’s limiting factor. His 81.3 quarterback rating ranks 28th. In a pass-crazy league, his touchdown-to-interception ratio is 3-to-5. And that’s against the weakest chunk of Washington’s schedule.
Washington also has entire units that are almost voids. There’s little depth anywhere except defensive line. The offensive line was a patchwork before injuries forced Morgan Moses to move from right tackle to left tackle. More injuries would hurt this team more than most.
Our tendency is to dismiss anything that can be mocked or minimized — after all, we’re a winner-take-all society, right? Nobody gets a million followers for being as good as they can be but not great. Put another way, 2020 probably wasn’t the best year for the Washington Football Team to turn itself into a parable for “dignity despite being merely modest” distinction.
For nine days, consider enjoying the major players Washington has drafted in the past two years — McLaurin, Sweat, Gibson and, if he keeps improving, Young. Get a kick out of the sack attacks. Light candles for Smith.
Why nine days? When that stretch ends, Washington faces the unbeaten Steelers. After that, it’s on to the thrilling race for the NFC East title. You say it’s not what you want? For now, to help a new coach build a better culture, maybe it’s what you need.