That’s not the path this team is on, and not close. The thing about the start to this season for Washington — with a date at 5-1 Green Bay approaching Sunday — is that optics matter. And the optics right now are lousy.
“As long as we are showing progress heading in the right types of directions, doing the things that we need to, you feel good about that,” Rivera said this week. “Sometimes you come out of a game and you feel like, ‘Man, we just really did not do the things we’re capable of.’ And that can be very, very frustrating.”
Bingo. That’s why this season, to this point, is some combination of frustrating, maddening and disheartening. The results are most important, of course. But if Rivera and his staff are trying to, as he says frequently, develop and grow, then the style within those results is also pertinent.
Before this season, it was apparent there were going to be difficulties. In 2020, the WFT “won” the NFC East despite finishing 7-9. What matters in determining the following year’s schedule is the place in the standings, not the record, and so a first-place slate awaited. All that led Rivera to say last week on “The Junkies” on 106.7 The Fan, “You almost want to say, ‘I wish 7-9 last year wouldn’t have been good enough to win the division.’ That way, the expectations would’ve been much lower and been a little easier.”
No. Just, no.
This isn’t about expectations for a repeat of the division title, or even a deep run in the playoffs — both foreign concepts around here. Washington last won consecutive NFC East championships from 1982 to ’84, which is just flooring, and last won two games in a single postseason in 1991, the season that produced the most recent of its three Super Bowl titles. Expectations here aren’t that tough, Coach, because the bar has been lowered to the depth of Metro tunnels as the fan base grumbles about the owner and the glory days slip further into the past.
The problem isn’t that 7-9 produced an unexpected division title, nor is it that 2-4 has Washington sitting three games behind first-place Dallas in the NFC East. The problem is this team looks as if it’s regressing rather than improving. Watch the games, and it feels that way viscerally. But look at the numbers, too, because they tell a raw, cold story.
A year ago, Washington ranked fourth in the league in giving up 20.6 points per game. Here are the point totals allowed by the defense each week this fall: 20, 29, 43, 30, 33, 31, good for an average of 31, worst in the NFL, a touchdown and a field goal more than it gave up last season. A unit that allowed 304.6 yards per game and 4.9 yards per play in 2020 — which both ranked second in the league — is now coughing up 423 yards a game and 6.0 yards a play. That’s regression.
There’s context, sure, because the offenses this Washington team has faced don’t match what last season’s group did. But there’s also culpability, and plenty to go around.
Think back to the feeling heading into this season. In its 5-2 finish to 2020, the WFT allowed the following point totals: 9, 16, 17, 15, 20, 20 and 14. That stretch was followed by a home playoff game against Tom Brady and Tampa Bay — the same Tom Brady and Tampa Bay that went on to win the Super Bowl — in which Washington was within 28-23 with under five minutes remaining. Washington had the ball in Buccaneers’ territory with a first down and two-and-a-half minutes left, trailing by just eight. A win was a possibility. Regardless of the outcome: They competed.
So the 7-9 record that led to an accidental division title didn’t lead to expectations this season. The style of football — stout, disruptive, dangerous defensive football — led to expectations. The idea was to take that and build on it, not tear it down.
Given what’s ahead, that could be difficult. The Packers have won five straight. A trip to the thin air of Denver follows, with the bye leading into a rematch with Tampa Bay. Before Denver lost Thursday night to slip to 3-4, the next team Washington was slated to face that currently has a losing record is Seattle, with a Monday night date set for Week 12, but the 2-4 Seahawks could well have Russell Wilson back by then.
Wait a second. When, exactly, might the WFT again be favored? Possibly Week 11 at Carolina, but the site of that game — plus the potential return of injured running back Christian McCaffrey — would seem to lean toward the Panthers. Week 13 at Las Vegas? Eh, maybe. Week 15 at Philadelphia? Sure, but by then, what will they be playing for anyway?
What they’ll be playing for is improvement. That’s paramount.
“It’s very frustrating to lose — period,” Rivera said. “But if you’re going to lose and not be frustrated, you want to make sure you’re playing hard, you’re giving great effort, and you’re limiting your mental, silly mistakes. That, to me, is growth.”
Growth is not lining up in the neutral zone on third and 10, as edge rusher Montez Sweat did against the Chiefs — gifting Patrick Mahomes another chance to sustain a drive. Growth is not watching cornerback Kendall Fuller whiff on tackles. Growth is not allowing opponents to score on more than half their drives — the worst percentage in the league. Growth is taking free agent cornerback William Jackson III and assimilating him into the defense. Instead, of the 118 cornerbacks graded by Pro Football Focus, Jackson is tied for 108th. (Come to think of it, that seems high.)
Anyway, put aside Rivera’s assessment, however accurate, that you are what your record says you are. Put tape over the corner of the television screen Sunday, blocking out the score, and ask yourself some questions: Are the players getting better as individuals? Are the offense and defense performing better as units? Has Chase Young developed some different moves to more consistently get to the quarterback?
How does this game make you feel?
That matters. The NFL is about results, without question. But it’s also about belief, and it would be great to believe — regardless of the final score Sunday in Green Bay or next week in Denver — that this team is getting better, not worse.