Midway through a season that has been equal parts confounding and exasperating, Ron Rivera is looking for a spark.
With a 2-6 record -- thanks to a pair of narrow victories -- and a 4 1/2-game deficit in the NFC East, Washington will need another dramatic November and December turnaround to harbor any hope of sniffing the postseason. While hardly counting on a repeat of 2020, when 2-7 became 7-9 and an unlikely division title, Rivera will spend the bye week searching for scenarios that might translate into a strong second half, as he ponders everything from a quarterback swap to a mentality shift that might spur a sudden revival of his once-mighty defense.
Everything is on the table, and while Rivera understands the frustration of fans who'd hoped for a continuation of Washington's late-2020 magic, he's thinking big picture, and his goals remain lofty.
"Believe me, I didn't go into this with rose-colored glasses," said Rivera, who was hired after the 2019 season, Washington's 14th consecutive campaign without a playoff victory. "You win the division at 7-9, and people think you're there, but what it really means is you got hot at the right time and your division wasn't very strong. My goal is to transform this organization and build a winning culture, and you're not gonna do that by going 7-9 and winning the division."
The Washington Football Team traveled to play the Denver Broncos in Week 8 and fell to 2-6 after a 17-10 loss. Here are the top photos from Washington's final game before the bye week. (Photos by Emilee Fails/Washington Football Team)
While Rivera has seen signs of progress in 2021, it has not been reflected on the scoreboard; only the Lions, Texans, Dolphins and Jaguars have worse records than Washington after eight weeks, and the rival Dallas Cowboys (6-1) are running away with the NFC East.
The coach still believes in his team, and in his team-building process, but he's anxious to get some positive reinforcement.
"I know it's about winning -- and that's what we're working toward," Rivera said. "People want to see us win, and I get it. When you're not winning, it's hard to sit there and say, 'We're close.' But I have to look at it a different way. There are steps we've made that are positive, and if we keep taking steps we'll get to where we need to go."
The question is, can the process be jump-started? The obvious place to begin is to assess the quarterback position. Taylor Heinicke, a relative unknown before last December, has been the guy since Ryan Fitzpatrick went down with a hip injury in the second quarter of Washington's season-opening defeat to the Los Angeles Chargers (a setback that may well prove to be season-ending, pending an MRI next week).
Heinicke has shined in some big moments, spurring dramatic victories over the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons, and Washington has been a middle-of-the-pack offense in terms of production. Scoring, however, has been an issue: Washington is averaging just 19.5 points per game, tied for 24th in the NFL rankings, and has particularly struggled in the red zone.
"I love what he does," Rivera said of Heinicke. "The problem with Taylor is when he overthinks it, and tries to be too perfect. Look at the touchdown throw he made to DeAndre Carter against Denver, and the ball he threw to Adam Humphries against Green Bay that got picked off in the end zone (by Chandon Sullivan in the fourth quarter). It's basically the same route -- he's working it to the corner -- and if he throws that ball to Adam the same way as the one he throws to DeAndre, it's a touchdown. But he was trying to make the perfect throw, instead of just laying it out there where it's supposed to be."
Heinicke's backup, Kyle Allen, has been far from perfect when it comes to ball security. He fumbled 13 times and threw 16 interceptions while starting 12 games for the Carolina Panthers in 2019, and he had one of each in four starts for Washington last season. Allen, however, gave the team some juice when he entered the lineup in relief of Dwayne Haskins, completing 69% of his passes and compiling a 99.3 passer rating before going down with a season-ending ankle injury against the Giants last Nov. 8.
If the offense seems stale at any point during the second half of the season, it stands to reason that Rivera might be tempted to insert Allen as a change of pace. What Washington would lose in terms of mobility and anticipation might be offset by Allen's superior arm strength. Conversely, if Allen were to take over at quarterback and struggle, Heinicke could be called upon in relief, which would theoretically keep opponents off balance.
The simplest course of action, obviously, would be to maintain the status quo (with Heinicke at quarterback) and tighten things up. The impending return of injured players like tight end Logan Thomas, right guard Brandon Scherff, rookie right tackle Sam Cosmi, and rookie receiver Dyami Brown could obviously help, while Rivera sees increased roles for wideouts Dax Milne and Carter and running back Jaret Patterson.
As for the defense -- well, there's a lot of room for improvement. Expected to be among the NFL's top units heading into 2021, Washington currently ranks 27th in both yards and points allowed, and its biggest stars have been struggling. One of them, defensive end Montez Sweat, suffered a jaw fracture against the Broncos that will keep him out for several weeks. His fellow edge rusher, 2020 NFL defensive rookie of the year Chase Young, has just 1.5 sacks and three tackles for loss.
"We would like to see a little bit more from those guys," Rivera said. "They need to stop pressing and trust their teammates. Sometimes when a guy tries to chip them, instead of running through the chip and blowing that guy up, you'll see them duck underneath or slip around and miss a chance to make a play. Sometimes Chase starts outside and plants his leg and cuts inside -- because he's trying to make a play -- and the quarterback gets flushed to the outside. If Chase stays outside, he has an easy sack, but instead he dives underneath."
Last Sunday, Young came up huge at the end of Washington's 17-10 defeat to the Broncos, forcing a Melvin Gordon fumble -- their second fumble of the three-play drive -- that linebacker David Mayo recovered at Denver's 24-yard-line with 21 seconds remaining.
"That's great," Rivera said, "but where were those plays earlier in the game? When they know you've got to take the ball away from them, and you still take it away from them…that's impressive, but where was that earlier? Why do we have to always put ourselves behind the 8-ball to play that hard? We should always be at that level."
It's yet another mystery Rivera will try to solve during the bye week and beyond, joining a long list that includes the still-struggling kicking game (new kicker Chris Blewitt, Rivera believes, needs to stop trying to drive the ball so hard, which is raising his release point).
Rivera is hopeful that a run of post-bye success during Washington's next four games -- against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Panthers, Seattle Seahawks and Las Vegas Raiders -- can keep hope alive heading into a five-game stretch against NFC East rivals (including a pair of clashes with the Cowboys) to close the regular season.
"If we can win three or more of those four," Rivera said, "those last five games become real, and we can control our own destiny."
That may seem far-fetched at the moment, but Rivera -- who went 12-4 in his third year with the Panthers, after a pair of losing seasons -- remains convinced that the long game will go Washington's way.
"My resolve hasn't waned, because this is something I've been through," he said. "I've seen the process play out, and I know that it works. It's unfortunate right now, because we still kind of hold ourselves back, more than anything else, by not paying enough attention to the details. But I do see improvement. We're getting there."