Fourth down, 13 yards from the end zone. Got to get a touchdown. What will you do?
Haskins threw the ball to a receiver who was eight yards short of the goal line and surrounded by two Ravens players who quickly swarmed him. The chance to score was lost.
“I hope I passed,” Haskins said later, after Washington’s 31-17 loss to Baltimore, when asked if he knew Rivera was testing him.
He did not.
“The ball’s got to go into the end zone or be put in position to be put in the end zone,” Rivera said.
“It’s something he’s got to learn. If he’s going to be a starter in this league and contribute to the football games, he has to understand and develop,” Rivera added.
“This is part of it. This is part of the growth,” Rivera went on to say.
Washington is a quarter of the way through the season that is going to determine whether Haskins remains the quarterback in his hometown, and it is impossible to know with any certainty what to think right now. While the final score might not show it, Sunday’s defeat might have been Haskins’s best NFL game. He completed 32 of 45 passes for 314 yards and did not commit a turnover.
Just seven days after a disaster in Cleveland in which three of his passes were intercepted and he also lost a fumble, Haskins looked calm and focused, swiftly looking around at receivers yet without the panic that has led to poor throws. He found the holes in Baltimore’s defense and exploited them with passes that Rivera called “darts.” For much of the day, he looked like a decent starting quarterback, keeping Washington competitive against one of the league’s most dynamic offenses.
But there still came those broken moments that leave doubt. Before Haskins failed to throw the ball into the end zone on that fourth down, he had led Washington on an impressive drive from his team’s 10-yard line to the Baltimore 10 by completing 8 of 11 passes and converting on both a third and fourth down along the way. And yet, he ruined the chance by getting sacked for an 18-yard loss right after center Chase Roullier was called for a false start, turning what had been first and goal at the 10 into second and goal from the 33.
It’s hard to make up 33 yards on three plays when the defense knows an offense has to score a touchdown. He made up 20 of those yards on the next two plays. Still, the 18-yard sack and the fourth down pass eight yards short of the goal line will be what lingers longest.
“It doesn’t erase anything he does,” Rivera said of the pass.
Every week seems to bring a public referendum on Haskins as Washington’s quarterback. Much the way Rivera wanted to see what Haskins did on fourth and goal from the 13, he is also interested in seeing how Haskins handles the criticism. Part of being a quarterback in the NFL is being able to ignore the shouting on radio and television and the Internet all week. After saying last Monday that he has a “cutoff point” for Haskins as a starter should the quarterback not improve his play, Rivera was curious to see how Haskins would react to the daily calls for him to be benched.
The fact Haskins looked confident and fired quick, strong throws to players who were open appeared to strike the coach as a good sign. He had what Rivera called “moments,” times when the passes were crisp and the offense moved in the chunks of yards it is supposed to take when operating properly.
These were the instances Haskins appeared to embrace at game’s end when he bounced around the field, shaking hands with Baltimore’s players, lingering so long that he was the last Washington player to leave, playfully sneaking behind Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, who was giving a television interview, and nudging Jackson in the back.
Later, during his postgame video conference with reporters, he talked about “having fun” and seemed relieved that he had come back to play better than he had the week before. He sounded almost giddy, lingering on an interview stage after his video conference ended to joke about a “Mighty Ducks” hockey jersey worn by running back Antonio Gibson.
It was one of those light moments that probably would have fit best after a victory. But with Rivera’s stated goal of seeing the team improve, a lot of what Haskins did Sunday would constitute something to celebrate.
If only there didn’t remain these perplexing occurrences that must make Washington’s decision-makers wonder if he is truly the quarterback around whom they can build.
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