Journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick enters the season as the Washington Football Team's starting quarterback. Credit: All-Pro Reels

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During the Great Kirk Cousins Wars of 2016 and 2017, the factions on both sides developed some shared conventional wisdom about the quarterback: namely, whatever you wanted his statistics and actions to prove, they could prove. Cousins routinely racked up counting stats (good quarterback!), but frequently failed to deliver in crucial games (bad leader!). He was known for elaborate, detailed planning and Tom Brady-esque sleep/brain studies (smart guy!) but also occasionally forgot the difference between kneel-downs to run out the clock and spikes to stop the clock (not so smart player!). And so on.

Cousins is mercifully gone now, having brought his polarizing actions and attitude to a small Plexiglas cube for the COVID era in Minnesota. But that conventional wisdom about him somehow seems to apply to the entire Washington Football Team franchise as they head into the 2021 season. Washington will open the season at home on Sept. 12 against the Los Angeles Chargers.

After winning the NFC East, the WFT finished 2020 by losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers in a lively, competitive playoff game. (Young team on the rise!) However, the team got there with a losing record despite being in by far the worst division in the NFL, and its rivals variously being decimated by injury or actively tanking games. (Mediocre team being slightly less awful than everyone else!)

Washington heads into this year with Ryan Fitzpatrick installed at quarterback. On the one hand, he replaces a badly limited post-injury Alex Smith, a rookie bust, and an assortment of just-a-guys as starter. (Clear improvement at the most important position in the game!) On the other, he is a notoriously streaky player prone to dazzling highs and catastrophic errors, often in the same series, who has started for a full quarter of the league. (Just another stop-gap journeyman with a limited ceiling!)

After spending a whole bunch of first-round draft choices on the defense, the WFT comes into this year as a highly touted unit with commensurate expectations. (Young, hungry, and the strength of the team!) But actually, the defense’s success last year largely came against second- and third-string quarterbacks and/or mediocre teams with little to play for, and the defensive side’s failure was the main problem in the playoff loss. (Unproven, probably overrated unit that let a number of proven players walk and added a first-round pick who has thus far made little impression!)

The team was once known for holding on to players too long and prizing veteran experience over athleticism and upside, but the cuts this year reflect a willingness to part with the Cinderella stories of the past while keeping an eye on the future. (Deeper, more exciting roster!) Some of those cuts, though, were truly baffling, such as releasing hard-working, seeming success stories from the bottom of the roster like safety Jeremy Reaves and cornerback Jimmy Moreland in favor of an underwhelming special teams contributor like Troy Apke. (Roster still has 100 percent more Troy Apke than the recommended daily allowance!)

For another example, third on the tight-end depth chart coming out of these cuts is Sammis Reyes, the fascinating, athletic Chilean who the team took a flyer on in the offseason. (Exciting, longshot lottery ticket of an athletic freak!) Reyes, it should be noted, played in his first professional football games this preseason, quite possibly had no earthly idea what he was getting into, and has received mixed reviews from the sort of football pundits who like to really break down tape rather than relying entirely on narratives and guesswork. (Waste of a roster spot!)

In some ways this Schrödinger’s cat of a football team, which is and isn’t everything all at once, can be frustrating. It’s difficult to write a season preview, for example, when every single data point about the team seems to mean simultaneous contradictory things. But so often with this team, most of the data points are incontrovertibly negative, which is part of why all of the uninspiring, unremarkable, unconvincing stuff I listed above feels like a fresh new sunrise for the WFT.

The 2021 season for the WFT could bring almost anything: It could bring anticipated success, or perfectly logical failure. It could bring continued growth and development, or it might just turn out to be more of the same. But it won’t be another season of columns about if the franchise will ever change the team name. It won’t (unless something goes drastically off the rails) be another season writing about how ownership undercut the football people.

It won’t, in short, be another season where abject failure is the only rational outcome and anything else is just a cosmic fluke. It’s just certain to be another football season, and for this team, that represents a tremendous improvement. 

Photo by All-Pro Reels, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.