Perhaps most impressive so deep in the season, a team that was outscored by 169 points last year — its worst differential since 1961 — now has outscored its foes by a dozen points.
Sometimes it is hard to recognize things as they evolve during a season, even for fans of a team, if such results seemed far outside the realm of plausibility before the year began.
With 13 games of hindsight, it is now possible to realize what Coach Ron Rivera did in his first year with Washington: He decided that about half of his inherited roster could not play a lick. Almost anybody would be better, especially if they were young and had potential.
Here’s who started on offense against San Francisco on Sunday who did not start a single game for Washington last season: offensive linemen Cornelius Lucas and Wes Schweitzer, tight end Logan Thomas, wide receiver Isaiah Wright and running back J.D. McKissic. Injured rookie Antonio Gibson has been Washington’s best back.
On the defense, which now ranks in the top four in the NFL in many categories, Sunday’s lineup was filled with men who never started a game last year, including No. 2 overall draft pick Chase Young; linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis; and, in the defensive backfield, an entirely new crew of free agents Kendall Fuller and Ronald Darby, rookie Kamren Curl and Deshazor Everett, a onetime spot starter who missed most of last season.
Now add the second-year players who started Sunday: wide receiver Terry McLaurin, who went over 1,000 receiving yards for the season; Pro Bowl-worthy defensive end Montez Sweat and linebacker Cole Holcomb.
As in every season, some of the turnover was caused by injury, such as the loss of safety Landon Collins. But if you catch yourself thinking, “These guys sure don’t play like the old what-was-their-name team,” that’s because, except for a few worthy linemen such as Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Brandon Scherff and Morgan Moses, they aren’t that team.
Those guys are gone, thank God. Someday, they can hold a reunion and talk about how good they were despite their record — at Josh Norman’s home.
On Sunday, when defensive lineman James Smith-Williams, taken 229th in April’s draft, hustled downfield to block a tackler and allow Curl, taken 216th, to run free for the last 40 yards of his interception-turned-touchdown, I thought: “Don’t tell me they’re learning to draft, too. I don’t think my mind will be able to cope.”
Before getting too excited, remember that Washington has had the weakest schedule in the NFC and eighth weakest in the NFL. It has only one win over a team with a record better than 5-8. It’ll be nearly a touchdown underdog to Seattle on Sunday.
If the inspirational Smith, who left with a calf injury to his 17-surgery right leg on Sunday, can’t play, then Washington could even lose its last two games against Carolina and the Eagles and watch the New York Giants and their hideous offense win the NFC East on a tiebreaker.
Still, under Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, order and civility have been restored. Over the previous 10 seasons, Jay Gruden lacked the former while Mike Shanahan was devoid of the later. Before that, two years of Jim Zorn. Yes, it has been that bad for that long.
Now, we see progress. Defensive coordinators are judged by their calls in the most important spots — a Washington weakness since … when? Richie Petitbon under Joe Gibbs? With Del Rio, Washington is second in preventing touchdowns in the red zone, second in stopping fourth-down conversions and tied for fourth in sacks. Dial ‘em up, Del Rio.
When you have one of the worst offenses in the NFL, and when wear and tear may be grinding down the three most valuable pieces in Smith, McLaurin and Gibson, every little bit helps.
Despite all the fine things Washington has done recently, it is wise to remember all the breaks that have fallen in its lap. This franchise has gotten the puff-up treatment far too often, so let’s be candid.
On Thanksgiving, Dallas already had a depleted offensive line, then lost both of its offensive tackles as Washington’s D-line feasted. Next, because of a virus outbreak among the Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers, then 11-0, had their schedule tied in a knot and played Washington on four days’ rest while Washington had been off for 10.
On Sunday, the 49ers, the most injured team in the NFL — 22 players on injured reserve with 211 games missed — watched top wide receiver Deebo Samuel pull a hamstring on the first snap of the game. Then San Francisco’s defensive leader, Fred Warner, was lost. Finally, two key fourth-quarter officiating decisions — a Haskins interception that was overturned on review and a holding penalty that negated a big San Francisco gain — were both correct, but both went Washington’s way.
San Francisco was already without quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, tight end George Kittle and defensive end Nick Bosa. Seriously, how did the 49ers stay close for so long?
Can a football team have karma on its side? Specifically, can this franchise, which has heard millions of fans, including many of its own, wonder whether it played under a dark cloud because of its old name?
If anyone says this balancing out of fortune, this arrival of the hint of a new culture, is due to Washington getting rid of its team name, I’m afraid they’ll have to leave the room — unless they’re rolling their eyes.
This is not a Curse of the Bambino, or Billy Goat Curse, kind of column. We do not do incantations or mystical doll piercings here. True, this column did once wage a tongue-in-cheek war with the D.C. Troll — my fantasy creation to symbolize decades of D.C. defeatism. That mock crusade had good results.
However, if the baseball team in Cleveland wins the World Series next season amid its own name change, some revisionist spiritualism may be required.
As for the Washington Football Team: If it is playing with high energy; if Young is changing minds — or mine, anyway — about whether he’ll become a major star; if Rivera and Smith are together the best NFL human interest story in years, then the remaining abused fans of this franchise deserve all the seasonal fun they can get. When you’ve been on the Snyder cruise to perdition for 20 years, you know it may not last.
For now, let Haskins, who played the second half Sunday after Smith came up limping, speak for many: “I was just thankful to be out on the grass again.”
Those who follow this franchise are just glad, for now, to have a team out on that grass that’s worth watching again.
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