Daron Payne sat in a Zoom meeting filled with reporters when he was asked the question that has persisted all season: what was the cause of the Washington Football Team's slow start?
"If I knew," he said after a 20-15 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, "we wouldn't have started off slow."
It's been a mystery that Washington has been unable to solve all year. There have been some exceptions, such as both matchups against the Dallas Cowboys, but more often than not, it feels as if the team needs to be facing defeat before it starts to compete.
Each game has provided a different list of reasons for the team's struggles in the first half, but a lack of consistency and execution have been common in all of them.
"We have to start and execute like we do at the end of the game," wide receiver Terry McLaurin said. "Too many times we're playing catch-up football, and against good football teams, especially this time of the year, that's not going to quite get it done."
Washington's slow starts have been a point of anguish since Week 1 when it was down, 17-0, to the Philadelphia Eagles, but for what it is worth, the team has always shown it has the resiliency to come back from double-digit deficits. After cornerback Fabian Moreau grabbed an interception before halftime, Washington scored 27 unanswered points while the defense held the Eagles to just 208 total yards.
It was an admirable performance, but Washington found itself in an even deeper hole against the Arizona Cardinals when it trailed, 20-0, at the break. Washington could have avoided that had it taken advantage of its opportunities and not given the ball away twice. And even though Washington outscored the Cardinals, 15-10, in the second half, the miscues were too much to overcome in a 30-15 loss.
"You have to sustain success," Rivera said after the game. "We did the same thing on defense. We had third-and-long a couple of times, and then we gave up a pass play and they got a first down. We have to learn to be consistent. These are growing pains, guys. We won a game [in Week 1], everybody's excited. I was excited. I'm enthusiastic because I think we have a good football team. We just have a lot to learn. We're a young team, and that's the way it is, that's the truth of the matter."
Washington dealt with a lot of those same problems against Seattle. Positive plays, like a 20-yard completion to Logan Thomas and a 30-yard completion to McLaurin, were quickly followed up by drive-killing interceptions. Seahawks running backs Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde were also finding open running lanes, which were thought to have been shored up during the team's four-game winning streak. Washington only trailed 13-3 at halftime, but Rivera thought the score could have been much closer.
"When you go and look at it...there were some missed chances," Rivera said. "We had some plays that we could've made that could have impacted the game. Unfortunately, we didn't make those plays."
In fairness, Washington was banged up heading into the matchup against one of the top teams in the NFC. It was without starting quarterback Alex Smith and running back Antonio Gibson. Linebackers Kevin Pierre-Louis and Cole Holcomb were also ruled out, which likely contributed to the defense allowing 181 yards on the ground.
That is not an excuse, according to middle linebacker Jon Bostic. He and his teammates have to make plays, no matter who is in the starting lineup.
"When we executed, we were stout against the run," Bostic said. "But when we didn't, that's when things got a little icky."
Hyde's 50-yard run to open the second half made the score 20-3, but just as it had done all year, Washington started to fight back near the end of the third quarter. Back-to-back touchdown drives, one of which started at the 4-yard line, cut the deficit from 17 points to five, and about 45% of its 353 total yards came on those possessions.
After Hyde's touchdown, the defense allowed just five rushing yards for the rest of the game. It also forced a turnover in the fourth quarter -- Montez Sweat's batted pass landed in the hands of Payne for an interception -- that led to a touchdown 11-plays later.
Washington's offense advanced to Seattle's 23-yard line following a three-and-out, but back-to-back sacks pushed the unit back to the 37 in the final moments. On fourth down, a Hail Mary attempt was batted away.
"I feel like we had an opportunity at the end and throughout the game to make some plays," McLaurin said. "We just didn't make those plays, but that's a good football team over there. I have to give credit to them. Their defense stepped up when they needed to, and they made some plays offensively, so don't take anything away from them. We felt like we left some stuff on the field. And with it being the end of the season like this, when we're in a playoff push, we have to capitalize on all opportunities."
Despite yet another slow start, there were signs of progress. Washington was able to hold the Seahawks, which averaged 30 points per game, to just one trip to the red zone and nearly upset the leader of the NFC West. And on top of that, Washington is still in control of the NFC East and has a chance to capture the division with a win over the Carolina Panthers and a loss from the New York Giants this weekend.
But if it wants to finish the season strong and make a deep run in the playoffs, it will need to fix the issues that have hampered it all year.