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Summarizing the Washington Football Team’s year, one packed with countless headlines and drama, is nearly impossible. But let’s try, anyway.
Washington retired its controversial and racist nickname and adopted a temporary moniker for the season and potentially beyond. It hired a promising coach in Ron Rivera, but he was dealt his own surprise in the form of a cancer diagnosis a month before the season started. Owner Dan Snyder is fighting a protracted court battle with minority owners, and several allegations of sexual harassment that created a toxic and abusive workplace were made against high-ranking executives. Later, the Washington Post reported that the organization settled a sexual misconduct claim against Snyder for $1.6 million in 2009.
The team also abruptly parted ways with two of its most notable draft picks. Washington released running back Derrius Guice in August after he was arrested on domestic violence charges. Its 2019 first-round draft pick, Dwayne Haskins Jr., the supposed franchise quarterback of the future, lost his starting job and was waived just after Christmas. Washington’s most successful quarterback has been Alex Smith, who returned to the field two years after he suffered a life-threatening leg injury.
Washington should be in shambles, not in the playoffs. Yet, with a 20-14 win Sunday night against the Philadelphia Eagles, the team clinched the NFC East title and its first playoff berth since the 2015 season.
“It’s just a testament to how much work we put in this offseason and how much adversity we had to overcome, and how much we just kept on pushing,” defensive end Montez Sweat said. “Tonight it wasn’t easy. That’s just a testament to the guys in the room and the character that Rivera’s building here.”
Put aside Washington’s underwhelming 7-9 record. Put aside, too, the oddities of Sunday’s slog of a win, in which players and pundits accused the Eagles of tanking when they sat their healthy starting quarterback in the fourth quarter of a close game. The division title is a sign that Washington is headed in the right direction, but it’s not the only sign, or even the most important one.
Whatever happens in the playoffs is icing. Washington opened as a 7.5-point home underdog against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, led by Tom Brady, who the team will meet at 8:15 p.m. Saturday night at FedExField. But the long-term progress and clarity the franchise is displaying and the changes finally set in motion in key departments, both on the field and off it, are arguably the bigger prize for Washington fans this year.
Put another way, maybe the upside to the dizzying news throughout 2020 is that there won’t be another year like 2020.
No, Washington hasn’t solved its eternal quarterback conundrum, but at least the coaches know the answer isn’t Haskins. After an early-season benching that caught many observers by surprise, injuries forced the staff to give him another chance. Not only did Haskins fail to deliver in his Week 15 and 16 starts against Seattle and Carolina, he was caught maskless at a party the night of the Seattle loss, his second violation of team and league pandemic protocols.
Instead, with the NFC title on the line Sunday, it was Smith who quarterbacked the team to its vital win. Soon to turn 37 and with a queasy injury history, Smith is not the quarterback of any team’s future, but he’s under contract through 2022, so one option for the front office would be to let Smith serve as a bridge to the next quarterback, buying itself some time for the scouting process.
The Washington defense has been stocked with blue-chip talent for years, but it never lived up to its potential until this season. Rookie pass-rush phenomenon Chase Young is their new lynchpin, captain, and marketable star rolled into one. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio got the most out of his unit in his first year on the job, developing unheralded young players like linebacker Cole Holcomb and rookie safety Kamren Curl into starters.
Progress on the field is nice for putting out a competitive product, but progress inside team headquarters in Ashburn, Virginia, was a necessity. Everything the Post uncovered about alleged sexism and sexual harassment toward employees and reporters was shameful and needed exposing. And the team’s former name had to be left in the past.
Many of these threads are incomplete. How will the ownership tussle end? What will lawyer Beth Wilkinson’s investigation into the organization, now overseen by the NFL, recommend? What will the team even be called next September? Major decisions are still to come, starting with a new team nickname that could divide the fan base.
But those issues are finally being addressed. The product on the field, led by Rivera, reveals promise.
“I want to give a big shoutout to our coaches because they picked up a lot of slack for me,” said Rivera, who completed his cancer treatments in October. “Just having to fight through things that I did, they were there and they did a tremendous job. It just shows you that when you work together as a team, man, anything can be accomplished.”
He’s been in this position before. The Carolina Panthers won their division in 2014 at 7-8-1 with Rivera at the helm. They went on to win their first playoff game, too, and he could do it again with Washington.
Stranger things have happened. Just look at 2020.
Photo by All-Pro Reels Photography, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.