ASHBURN, Va. — Head coach Ron Rivera is cultivating a certain type of culture within his Washington Football Team. It’s a squad built on grinding and grittiness, a fierce physicality that is fueled by a sturdy defensive front. The unit was good enough to propel the team to the NFC East crown a season ago. Whatever Washington does moving forward depends heavily on what happens to an offense that received an infusion of new life in the offseason.
As well as the WFT played down the stretch in 2020 — after a 2-7 start, the team won five of its last seven regular-season games — that success had plenty to do with finding some stability on offense. Quarterback Alex Smith earned Comeback Player of the Year honors by coming off the bench and playing in the majority of those wins. The reality is that Washington wound up starting four different quarterbacks over the course of the year. The offense ranked 30th in the NFL in total yards and 25th in passing yards.
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The Football Team managed to go 7-9 with those paltry numbers, with their division title saying more about the quality of the NFC East than their brilliance. They likely won’t earn a second consecutive trip to the postseason unless that offense improves noticeably.
“The potential is there,” wide receiver Terry McLaurin said last week. “But the first thing that comes to my mind with potential is that it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t put the work in. It’s the same offense but with different pieces. Each year, you have to develop a new identity. We have so many weapons who can stress a defense that we have to keep building that identity now and put that product on the field come Sunday.”
Washington’s evolution on offense depends largely on a couple factors. The first is the quarterback position, where 17th-year veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick and 28-year-old journeyman Taylor Heinicke have been competing for the job throughout the offseason. Fitzpatrick feels like the logical choice simply because of his experience, as Heinicke literally earned his shot at the job after pleasantly surprising people as the starter of the Football Team’s Super Wild Card Weekend loss to Tampa Bay. Fitzpatrick offers the same critical quality that the now-retired Smith provided last season: the calming reassurance that results from having seen every situation imaginable in this league.
The other essential component to Washington’s success is the maturation of its receiving corps. McLaurin is already on his way to being a star after only two seasons and tight end Logan Thomas is a reliable playmaker. The bigger question is whether the pieces around them can contribute on a weekly basis. The Football Team has added a number of new faces to bolster the passing game — including rookie Dyami Brown and veterans Curtis Samuel and Adam Humphries — but it still remains to be seen how they all fit together.
Let’s also be real here: This isn’t going to be an offense that will rival the Kansas City Chiefs. It just needs to be a unit that can be more dynamic and reliable.
“We want to be very consistent,” Rivera said. “Get the ball. Drive it. Control the clock a little. We’ll punt, but [we don’t want] a three-and-out. We need to be consistent and then put our defense in position to pin our ears back late in the game. That’s what you love to have. (The offense) can make the plays when they need to make the plays and put us in position to win.”
“You really have to be able to do it all, but you have to be able to push the ball downfield,” added offensive coordinator Scott Turner. “It opens up everything. And not just for the rest of the passing game but the entire offense. You look back at last year and we did a pretty good job of spreading the field horizontally. Getting the ball out of our hands, helping the [pass-blocking] and letting guys run after the catch. When you can now complete the ball down the field, it just opens all that up even more.”
The Football Team is assembling a passing attack that bears an eerie resemblance to the one Rivera had in his final years as coach of the Carolina Panthers. There is no Christian McCaffrey in the backfield — although Antonio Gibson is coming off a promising rookie season — but there are plenty of receivers who can make plays with the ball in their hands. Samuel, who was removed from the reserve/COVID-19 list on Monday but remains on the physically unable to perform list with a groin injury he suffered earlier this offseason, caught 77 passes for 851 yards in Carolina last year. Humphries is a shifty slot receiver who didn’t generate great production in Tennessee the last two years, but he posted 55-plus catches in three consecutive seasons with the Bucs from 2016 through ’18. Cam Sims flashed his ability to make big plays last season, including a 100-yard outing against Tampa Bay in the playoffs.
The real gem is likely to be Brown. The third-round pick out of North Carolina averaged 20-plus yards per catch in each of his last two college seasons and that explosiveness has been the talk of the offseason. Brown has proven to be a more sophisticated route runner than advertised and his maturity has been equally impressive.
“He’s not fazed by anything,” Thomas said. “He doesn’t feel like a rookie out there. I’ve been around some guys who are always asking questions and trying to figure things out. He’s got it figured out already on his own.”
The great thing about the Football Team is they understand who they are at this stage. This offense has the chance to make huge strides because the players grasp how rare it was to succeed with so many issues on that side of that football in 2020. In fairness, a large number of those problems had plenty to do with circumstances that were unforeseeable, such as the revolving door at quarterback and the impact that COVID-19 had on the chance to develop some younger skill players. The Washington players also realize that, as Rivera told his team recently, “You’re not going to show up and do what you did last year. People know who you are now.”
“We got to that point in Carolina where we were feeling like we could just show up and turn it on,” Rivera said. “But we had to work at it. That’s what I tell the guys here. We’re trying to get them to understand that we have to keep working. We’re not the ’85 Bears or New England from a couple years ago. We’re not that type of team.
“My concern is that we don’t mature. We’re going to have to fight and scrap for everything we get.”
That’s actually the best message to keep emphasizing to a young team. The major takeaway Washington had from last season was that a lot can happen when you don’t quit and keep showing up. The Football Team learned that winning isn’t simply about having more talent than the other team. It’s about having more desire, more determination and more heart. As soon as this team found some stability at quarterback, it found the confidence to believe it could rise to the top of the division.
This time around, as Rivera explained, the road becomes much harder. Washington has the invaluable experience that comes from having played must-win games week after week and it also has the makings of a dominant defense. The Football Team’s offense knows where it fits into the equation for this team to enjoy long-term success. It simply needs to find a way to deliver on the promise that is already there.
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