The 2020 NFC East was arguably the worst division football has ever seen, but somebody had to win it. And the Washington Football Team, in their inaugural season under both head coach Ron Rivera and the new (maybe) temporary name, were the benefactors of that terrible division. Despite alternating between Dwayne Haskins, Kyle Allen, and Alex Smith at quarterback throughout the year, Washington finished 7-9 and won the division. Injuries forced Taylor Heinicke to start their playoff game, where Washington lost by just one score to the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers.
It was a great first season for Rivera and his new regime, even as turmoil continues to brew with owner Dan Snyder. But Washington knows the reality of their situation: getting back to the playoffs in 2021 won’t be easy. For starters, the Cowboys look to be much improved with Dak Prescott and others returning from injury, while the Giants - who swept the Football Team in 2020 - spent big on upgrading their offensive weapons around Daniel Jones, on top of seeing Saquon Barkley return from injury. Even the Eagles, who are downplaying expectations this year, have some young talent that will make them a concern.
So Washington set their sights on using this offseason to patch the holes they had in 2020, and that largely started with the quarterback spot. Haskins, their first-round pick from 2019, is out of town. So is Smith, who ended up retiring after an incredible comeback story. Heinicke and Allen are both still around, but neither represents a great option in the short-term, which prompted Washington to sign Ryan Fitzpatrick, who’s had yet another career resurgence in Miami the last two years.
To get a better feel for where the Football Team stands heading into training camp, we touched base with Bill Horgan of Hogs Haven. A big point of emphasis for him centered around the offense, especially Fitzpatrick:
Offensively, last year’s moribund performance is in the rearview mirror. The team added receivers in free agency and the draft by signing Curtis Samuel and Adam Humphries, and drafting Dyami Brown in the 3rd round without losing anyone from last year’s roster. At tight end, the team traded in a couple of replacement quality backups and drafted John Bates in the 4th round and signed some other players to compete for backup roles. Logan Thomas, who had 670 yards in a breakout season returns as the starting TE. Last year’s starting RB, Antonio Gibson, was a rookie who got noticeably more patient and decisive as the season went on, but suffered a turf toe injury that affected the final month of his season. He will start the season more skilled than he was a year ago, and hopefully fully healthy. Washington’s OL may not be full of household names, but it is deep, with little falloff in skill when you insert a backup. In a 17-game season, this should be an advantage. Of course, last year’s Week 1 starting QB, Dwayne Haskins, is now Mike Tomlin’s problem.
Which brings us back to the quarterback — Ryan Fitzpatrick. What you believe about the 2021 season depends on what you believe about Ryan Fitzpatrick. If you see him as a journeyman players who is a borderline backup/starter, then its easy to think that Washington’s win total should be capped at 7 or 8 games. The alternate view is that Fitzpatrick has not only been playing the best football of his career in the past 4 seasons (Tampa Bay & Miami) but that he’s largely solved his interception problem, he rarely fumbles, and actually been one of the better quarterbacks in the league since 2017.
The evidence to support the latter view is there if you look for it. Fitzpatrick was ranked 8th in the NFL in QBR in 2019; he improved to 5th overall in 2020. In his last 16 starts (all in Miami) he threw for 4,414 yards, with 27 TDs and 13 INTs, and has a winning record in those 16 games. Many fans feel that Washington gives Fitzpatrick the best team overall that he’s ever been a part of, with the best defense he’s ever been able to rely on. Fitzpatrick himself has said several times that 2021 is the best situation he’s ever been in during his career.
The other side of the ball, however, was a huge strong point for the Football Team and looks to be ready to run it back, per Horgan:
Most fans and many professional analysts believe that Washington’s defense, which officially finished 5th overall and was rated 3rd-best by Football Ousiders (based on DVOA), will be better in 2021 with the additions of veteran CB William Jackson III (to replace Ronald Darby) and free safety Bobby McCain, the selections of first round draft pick LB Jamin Davis and CB Benjamin St-Juste, and the return from injury of DT Matt Ioannidis, along with SS Landon Collins. The only significant loss to the defense was (now backup) DE Ryan Kerrigan; otherwise the 2020 roster is intact, with strong additions.
When I asked Horgan about potential breakout candidates for 2021, it’s no surprise that he first combed through a few names on defense. The aforementioned St-Juste and Ioannidis both came up, and for good reason, as well as second-year safety Kamren Curl. Horgan describes Curl as “a highly flexible DB who mostly plays as a slot corner in Washington’s big-nickel defensive alignment, which the coaches call the Buffalo nickel. He’s something special, and he will likely be a Pro Bowler in future years.”
But with much of the focus on the offensive side of the ball, Horgan thinks rookie receiver Dyami Brown could be the one to really turn heads in 2021:
He’s a burner who can stretch the field. When McLaurin, Samuel and Brown are on the field at the same time (4.35, 4.31, 4.46 40-times) many defenses will find them tough to cover. Like St-Juste, Brown may not be a starter, but will be a situational player who will have an impact akin to a Desean Jackson style player. He’s not so small though (6’0”, 195 lbs) and may also have the potential to develop into a full-route tree receiver over time.
Rivera’s first year in Washington made it very clear what their formula was going to be: a stifling defense paired with an efficient offense. Instability at the quarterback position nearly ruined their season, so the Football Team took efforts to upgrade not only the quarterback position, but also to surround him with more weapons. Still, their odds of becoming the first team to win the NFC East in consecutive seasons since the early 2000’s will come down to two major challenges:
First is that the offense needs to click behind a new quarterback and the addition of several new players. If it does, then the sky is the limit for this team. If not, it could be another year where the team finishes a game below .500.
Second is the schedule, and that concern comes in two parts. Firstly, Washington has a first-place schedule as we enter the initial 17-game season. The “extra” game that Washington drew is a road game against Buffalo. The two NFC 1st place matchups put us at home vs the Seahawks (not too bad) but on the road against Green Bay (while the rest of the NFCE face the Dalton-led Bears, Cousins-led Vikings and Goff-led Lions). Those three games represent a handicap for Washington.
But the other schedule challenge is that the WFT plays 5 of its 6 division games in the final weeks of the season (Weeks 14-18). In some ways, that’s an advantage. As a defensive team with a deep roster, we are likely to be at our best in December and January, but it means having the division title remain out of secure grasp until the final week or two. I can foresee this team getting out to a 4-3 start, yet ending the season with double-digit wins. It could be a challenge, though, for the team to remain confident and unruffled if they are around .500 approaching the middle of the season, especially if other NFCE teams get out to a faster start.