The peculiar situation humbles the players without ruining their confidence. That balance is especially striking when you compare it with the previous time this team was coming off a playoff berth.
Five years ago, Washington began the 2016 season after winning the NFC East the previous year with a 9-7 record. It had acquired a brash new star, Josh Norman, who signed a five-year contract that made him the highest-paid cornerback in NFL history. And the entire squad talked so much noise during training camp — just about every unit said it would be elite and just about every dream sounded attainable — that then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe couldn’t resist joining the movement.
“There is no reason this year we shouldn’t go all the way,” he said while attending a practice in Richmond.
Washington finished 8-7-1 and didn’t make it back to the playoffs.
It hasn’t made consecutive postseason appearances in 29 years.
As this season begins, it’s probably easier to guess the franchise’s future name than to predict its 2021 record. The strongest parts of this team need the polish and verification that only a larger sample size can provide. There are a good number of promising young players who are too gifted to keep off the field but still require some patient, on-the-job training that could cost the team a win or two. And there are holes in the roster that have yet to be addressed, which is typical for the second year of a new regime. It’s even more understandable when you consider that it took until January for Rivera to revamp the front office.
The pacing of the whole process feels right. It’s the most incremental approach the organization has tried during Daniel Snyder’s ownership tenure. For the past six years, dating to the start of Scot McCloughan’s short time as general manager, there has been an emphasis on slowing down a little and being more purposeful in roster construction and player development. But something always interfered with the commitment to fully building out the team.
And Snyder’s shortcomings don’t cover it all. Bruce Allen was a disastrous team president who kept his job for too long. McCloughan made several draft and free agency decisions that didn’t pan out, and he was fired before he could implement all of his vision. Former coach Jay Gruden managed to last into his sixth season, but he was stuck in mediocrity for the bulk of his tenure.
They all contributed to a roster that Rivera has torn apart quickly. His greatest feat so far isn’t merely making the playoffs with a losing record in Year 1. It’s the fact that he kept the team focused and competitive enough to capitalize on that opportunity while doing the hardest part of a rebuild — the teardown.
Now, just 16 of the 53 players on the active roster are holdovers. The old regime left behind some really good draft picks, such as wide receiver Terry McLaurin, defensive tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, and guard Brandon Scherff. But every team is going to acquire quality players in a league with a hard salary cap. The greatest measure of a well-devised team is the ability to find value everywhere, create depth and foster a selfless culture.
It’s too soon to declare that all is going well. It will take time to know whether Rivera, General Manager Martin Mayhew and the rest of the front office are evaluating talent properly. But there’s a grit and a passion about Washington now. The players compete. A classic defensive identity is emerging.
“They brought some tough guys in here,” safety Landon Collins said. “Some great guys. Guys that came out here to compete. And I love it because we didn’t have nobody complaining. That’s the biggest thing I was worried about. My first couple of years here, a lot of people would complain. … [The guys they brought in] just came out here and practiced, and when you got guys that [are] like that, it’s really just to come out here and play and play for the love of the game. It’s amazing.”
Without a long-term answer at quarterback, Washington is left to hope it sees the best side of 38-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick. But even with his high interception numbers, he is better than the 2020 ensemble cast of QBs. Good enough to propel the team to, say, a 10-7 record in this new 17-game season? He has only finished a season with a winning record as a regular starter twice. It has been a long time since he led the New York Jets to a 10-6 record in 2015. But Fitzpatrick did post a 4-3 record in games he started last season. He did help the Miami Dolphins, who are in a similar, still-under-development situation, finish 10-6.
But I’m not obsessed with the quarterback’s, or the team’s, record this season. It’s more important to take a longer view. It’s easy to dismiss Fitzpatrick as a placeholder who ultimately will hold back the franchise. For a stopgap season, however, he makes some sense because of his ability to make throws in tight windows, which will let McLaurin and the other young wide receivers, tight ends and running backs show more of what they can (or can’t) do. If you look at it that way, this random Fitzpatrick season could end up being an important tool for player evaluation and development. In theory, a better passer might also complement the running game and allow for a truer sense of what the multifaceted Antonio Gibson can do.
So there are scenarios in which a 7-10 or 8-9 season would end up being better than a wasted season with a journeyman quarterback. If Fitzpatrick doesn’t take care of the football, then he could put the defense in terrible situations and hinder that unit’s effectiveness. But, overall, I don’t think Washington risks stunting its growth in 2021. There are many ways it can make progress toward the ultimate goal of building a truly great team, as soon as 2022 if it finds a quarterback. And by building gradually and maintaining salary cap flexibility, the franchise is keeping its options available for when the time comes to make a big move — or multiple significant moves — to complete the roster.
Right now, however, Rivera is working to improve a team that finished with a losing record. The playoff berth was a surprise treat, but he is still looking at a 7-9 team that needs work.
“I want to make sure we understand that we’ve got to work our way back to where we were last season and to be able to play to that ability,” Rivera told reporters during a tone-setting interview early in training camp. “When I talk about maturity, that’s what I’m talking about — understanding how to handle success and how to continue to work to create more success.”
There’s no bluster in this group. In the long run, it just might be okay.