The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What went wrong for the Washington Football Team in 2021? Four major issues stand out.

The Washington Football Team's defensive line failed to meet expectations this season, which featured several injuries and a sideline fight between Jonathan Allen (93) and Daron Payne (94). (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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The Washington Football Team believed it had filled a significant void on its roster when it drafted Jamin Davis with the No. 19 pick. The former Kentucky linebacker had the speed, athleticism, mind-set and potential to be an every-down player and assume the middle linebacker position as the quarterback of the defense.

“When he sees it and he trusts it and he goes, he’s special,” fellow linebacker Cole Holcomb said.

But mixed among Davis’s occasional highlight-reel plays were rookie struggles, leading to him playing a part-time role and not meeting the expectations placed on a first-round pick. In some ways, it epitomized the team’s struggles overall. Some of its younger players needed more time to develop. Some of its newer veterans struggled with communication issues, and its biggest offseason acquisitions failed to make a significant impact. And throughout the season, the smallest details snowballed into bigger problems.

“A lot of it was building a relationship with him, me and him learning how to communicate in terms of he understands why I’m telling him something or what it means to him when I tell him something, and vice versa,” Holcomb said of Davis.

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After the team had some success in Year 1 under Coach Ron Rivera, including a division championship and playoff appearance despite a 7-9 record, the second season of Washington’s rebuild disappointed. The team finished 7-10, leaving it short of preseason expectations and with more uncertainty about its future.

“I just think this offseason, a lot of guys, we need to go back and we need to be very self-critical,” Holcomb said. “Every single person in this organization can easily go back and say, ‘Hey, what could I have done better?’ … If we can do that, we’ll be able to turn this around next year.”

So what went wrong? Four areas stood out most significantly among the team’s myriad issues.

Unmet expectations by the D-line

In 2020, Washington’s defense jumped from one of the worst in the NFL in many statistical categories to one of the best, largely because of its vaunted line. After drafting Chase Young with the No. 2 pick, Washington had a front four of all first-round picks — and all of that talent was often stifling for opponents.

But during its second year together, as it faced a tougher slate of opposing quarterbacks, Washington’s defensive line appeared out of sync, and it showed in critical areas. In its first eight games — when Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Young started — the defense held its own against the run but was the league’s worst on third down, allowing a 56.5 percent conversion rate.

“Everybody’s expectations across the board — players, mine, coaches, fans, everybody — was probably a little bit out of whack,” Rivera said Tuesday. “One of the biggest things that we tried to do was we tried to show what we were capable of and who we are instead of trying to just go out and play football the way we were supposed to. … There were some things that we were doing when we weren’t supposed to do; we were popping gaps when we were trying to make plays instead of staying home. Just knowing the play doesn’t care who makes it.”

Rivera has pointed to the team’s four-game winning streak, when its third-down defense improved significantly to 30.8 percent, as a time when the line played in sync. But the group was without Sweat (broken jaw) and Young (season-ending knee injury) for almost all of that span and faced other challenges because of their absences.

“I don’t think we’re as sharp as we were,” Allen said late in the season. “I think teams have been scheming us really well. I think teams have been taking advantage of just schematic things we’ve done. So I think players are to blame, coaches are to blame, and I think everyone is at fault for what’s been going on. I don’t think there’s one person or one aspect to blame.”

Perhaps more concerning were moments that raised questions about the group’s leadership. Rivera has stressed, without mandating, that players should attend voluntary organized team activities to build continuity early in the offseason. Young and Sweat were among the notable absences last year.

But the most public incident came in Week 16, when Allen, the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year selection, fought with Payne on the sideline during the team’s blowout loss at Dallas. The two claimed it was a “brotherly disagreement,” but it revived talk of maturity and whether the defensive line — a group viewed as the strength of the team — has the chemistry and team-first mentality to play efficiently together.

“At the end of the day, we’re professionals and we get paid to play football,” Allen said the following week. “So regardless of the personal feelings, we have a job we have to do.”

Inconsistent QB play

Washington didn’t solve its longtime problem when it signed Ryan Fitzpatrick to a one-year deal in March. But the belief was he would provide stability to an offense that cycled through four starters the previous season. His injury in the first half of the season opener created an opportunity for Taylor Heinicke, who surprised many with his play and resilience but lacked the consistency needed at the position. He finished the season ranked 19th among qualified quarterbacks in completion percentage (65.0), 21st in yards per attempt (6.92) and 27th in expected points added per dropback (-0.08).

“You’ve got to have a guy that can pull the trigger and make good decisions, manage the game, and then have the ability to make plays when you need them to be made,” Rivera said late in the season. “You look at the teams that have won the Super Bowl — a lot of them involve a guy named Tom Brady. They point to a guy that really can control things and manage things and do things that need to be done.”

It’s impossible to know whether Fitzpatrick would have led Washington to more success, and Heinicke impressed with his mobility and big plays that often kept Washington in games late. He played fearlessly, a trait Rivera has said he looks for in quarterbacks. But he toed the line between aggressive and reckless, and at times his errant throws and missed reads proved costly.

“Quarterback is the most important position on the field,” General Manager Martin Mayhew said Tuesday. “He is going to elevate the other players around him, and having a good quarterback helps your defense as well. So that’s going to be a key decision. It’s something we’ve been talking about for months now, and we will get it done.”

Injuries and the virus

Fitzpatrick was the first major piece of the puzzle lost to injury, but he was one of several starters to miss significant time because of injury. By the end of the season, Washington had six starters on injured reserve and two other key backups out with injuries. and it still was without wide receiver Curtis Samuel, one of its top free agent signings.

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In December, as Washington began a five-week stretch of divisional games to determine its playoff chances, the team was struck with an outbreak of the coronavirus that led to more than 20 players going on the covid-19 reserve list and eventually forced the postponement by two days of a game at the Philadelphia Eagles. When the teams played on a Tuesday night, Washington started Garrett Gilbert at quarterback — only four days after signing him off the New England Patriots’ practice squad.

Washington, which had previously gone on a four-game winning streak, went 1-4 in those divisional games.

“We found our identity over that winning streak that we had,” said running back J.D. McKissic, who suffered a season-ending neck injury in Week 12. “We were playing great defense; we were running the ball; we were managing the game; we were taking care of the ball. And then we had injuries. Guys went down, and you really got to change up everything when you lose guys. So I think everything hit us.”

Key offseason acquisitions struggle

Washington’s offseason objectives were to get faster, add help to the trenches and improve on defense — so that when the team did find its franchise quarterback, he would be set up to succeed.

Fitzpatrick would tide them over for at least a year, maybe two, Rivera said. Samuel, a player Rivera and executive vice president Marty Hurney knew well from their days with the Carolina Panthers, would provide another versatile playmaker alongside wide receiver Terry McLaurin and running back Antonio Gibson. William Jackson III, a speedy cornerback who thrived in Cincinnati’s man-coverage scheme, would let defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio play more man. Davis would shore up the middle of the defense, and rookie wideout Dyami Brown would give Fitzpatrick another deep target.

Washington believed it had made significant upgrades. But because of injuries (Fitzpatrick, Samuel), slow development (Davis, Brown) and difficulties with the scheme (Jackson), the team’s highest-profile offseason pickups failed to pan out.

Samuel, who played only 84 offensive snaps, told reporters Monday that he feels the best he has since suffering a groin injury in May. Jackson said he believes things started clicking for him after the bye week, but then he suffered a calf injury that cost him the final three games.

As for Davis, Rivera stressed that he needs time to develop and that the team now believes he’s best suited at outside linebacker, instead of the middle linebacker spot. The responsibilities of that role are complex and can be overwhelming for a young player, so Washington moved away from its plan of Davis manning that position early in the season.

“I feel like a lot of times this season, I might tell him some things, like, ‘Hey, this is about to happen,’ and he would be like, ‘Well, why are you telling — like, how does this apply to me?’ Like, he’s trying to figure it out,” Holcomb said of Davis. “It just took him a little bit. … I just think that’s going to come with getting together in the offseason and going through film and talking through stuff and building that relationship. I think we can get ahead of the ball in that in the offseason instead of waiting until Weeks 1 to 4 to try and learn how to communicate and jell with the guys.”

Washington did find upgrades from many of its less-heralded additions. Wide receiver DeAndre Carter became one of the league’s top returners. Charles Leno Jr. proved to be a consistent left tackle and a sorely needed leader, which landed him a new three-year deal this month. And Ereck Flowers, who returned via a trade with the Miami Dolphins, had a strong season at left guard.

But facing urgency to find a quarterback and produce a winning season, Rivera knows it’s time for more in Washington.

“This offseason is going to be very important, very vital to what I think is part of the plan,” he said this month. “It’s time I think that we see this team start to take that big step forward.”