The Washington Football Team has entered the offseason after winning the NFC East for the first time since 2015 and subsequently suffering a 31-23 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There are plenty of signs for optimism, but now is a time to reflect on what the team has accomplished in head coach Ron Rivera's first season.
For those of us at washingtonfootball.com, it is once again time to assess players, coaches and overall performances. These are the 2020 season superlatives:
(Awards given are based on the opinions of washingtonfootball.com Staff Writer Zach Selby and Editor Kyle Stackpole. The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect the opinion of the team.)
Offensive MVP: Terry McLaurin
Terry McLaurin received this award during the bye week, and even though he missed time with a high ankle sprain, he showed grit and resiliency to earn the award once again.
McLaurin's regular season stats are more than enough to prove he was Washington's best offensive weapon. He finished 13th in receiving yards (1,118), 12th in targets (134), tied for 17th in receptions (87) and 10th in yards after the catch (490). Regardless of who was throwing him the ball, he accounted for nearly a third of Washington's yardage through the air.
But what made his season even more admirable was how he made sure he was able to play in the Week 17 matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles with the playoffs on the line. He received extra treatment, kept himself sharp by getting mental reps and even worked with a massage therapist outside of the facility. It paid off, too, as he finished the game with seven receptions for 40 yards and a touchdown.
"My main focus was just trying to be out here," McLaurin said after the Eagles game. "I didn't really care about catches or yards. I just wanted to be out here for my guys. All that we've been through this year, the ups and downs, it was for this moment right here. It wasn't pretty, but we came out on the other side and we're champions."
Defensive MVP: Chase Young
Chase Young won the bye week superlative for "Most Likely To Break Out" in the final stretch of the season. That prediction was spot-on, because he became the defense's best player.
Young entered the bye week with 2.5 sacks, 19 tackles and a forced fumble; he ended the season with more than double those numbers in every category with 7.5 sacks, which led all rookies, 44 tackles, four forced fumbles and three recoveries, one of which he took back for a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers. He was also named NFC Player and Rookie of the Month for his 20 tackles, three pass deflections, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries in December.
"I think the way he arrived on the scene -- serious about his work and fitting in with his teammates -- I think is exactly what you hope for," said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. "And then the biggest surprise, just something that I really didn't anticipate, is how much of a leader he is and how much of an inspiration he is. He loves football. He loves his teammates. All you have to do is watch him. Watch him during practice, watch him on game day. He loves ball. I think it's infectious."
Another one of Young's traits that was unexpected, yet valued just as highly, was his ability to lead his teammates. He broke down huddles, cheered on his teammates and celebrated big plays from the offense. Rivera called his emotions "infectious," and it is rare, quarterback Alex Smith said, to see a player have that kind of affect.
"I think Chase is so comfortable in his own skin and being who he is," Smith said. "I think guys respect that, but it's rare to have a guy that young step in and really affect his teammates as positively as he has. He's definitely unique. I've never seen a guy roam the sidelines like he does as we're on offense."
Best Rookie: Antonio Gibson
Young was clearly the best rookie on the team and has a good chance of winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, but among the rest of Washington's rookies, running back Antonio Gibson stood out as the most impactful.
Gibson led the team with 795 yards and 11 touchdowns, and were it not for his turf toe injury that kept him out for most of the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the two games after that, he likely would have improved on both of those numbers. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry and also had 36 receptions for 247 yards.
Gibson showed steady improvement in every game, but his peak performance came against the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving when he rushed for 115 yards and three touchdowns. He finished the season as the sixth-most efficient running back, according to Football Outsiders, and Pro Football Focus gave him a rushing grade of 85.3. And even though the injuries hampered his production, he proved he can be the type of player Washington envisioned when it drafted him in the third round.
"He's got the skillset that really hasn't been developed. As you watch him and watch what [running backs coach] Randy [Jordan] and [coaching assistant] Coach [Jennifer] King have done with him, you feel really good about that," Rivera said. You know that, especially with the coaching he's gotten, he's starting to show the signs of development and growth that we've been looking for."
Breakout Player: Cam Sims
When it came to Washington's wide receivers, there was no doubt that McLaurin was going to produce; the only question was which player would emerge as the team's No. 2 threat. After years of being on the roster, Cam Sims rose to the challenge.
Admittedly, it took Sims some time to get going. At the bye week, Sims had caught all four of his passes and scored his first-career touchdown but only had 61 yards in seven games to show for it. But once Washington returned from its break with a home matchup against the New York Giants, Sims erupted for 110 yards on three receptions. That performance alone eclipsed all his production in the past 15 career games.
From that point on, Sims was a mainstay of Washington's offense. His snap counts jumped from averaging 23% to 92%, and he finished the season catching 66.7% of his targets for 477 yards, which was second among the team's receivers. McLaurin said Sims is a player who gets his work done every day, and it finally paid off.
"He took advantage of the opportunities he had on special teams, and that got him a spot on the 53," offensive coordinator Scott Turner said. "We had some guys get banged up, and he stepped in. He had opportunities and made the most of those opportunities and got him more. Now, he's making the most with the opportunities that he has had. He had the one big catch against Dallas, and then the three really huge plays, especially the one at the beginning of the second half that really gave us some juice to get us going. I think that guys see that. I think Cam feels that and gives him confidence and gives the other players confidence."
Best Play: Taylor Heinicke's Eight-Yard Touchdown
There were plenty of exciting moments from the 2020 season, but few, if any were more electric than Taylor Heinicke's eight-yard diving touchdown run in the Wild Card round against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Washington's offense was facing a 3rd-and-5 at Tampa Bay's 8-yard line and in desperate need of a score. Heinicke, who had been named the starter hours before kickoff, dropped back for a pass with the pocket quickly collapsing around him. Heinicke ducked under Jason Pierre-Paul, escaped pressure and started running for the goal line. He then dove for the pylon, and the ball crossed the plane just before he was pushed out of bounds. Heinicke threw his arms up in celebration and pumped his fist while Young pointed at Heinicke's name on the back of his jersey.
The touchdown brought Washington within two points of tying the score, and while the team could not complete the comeback, Heinicke still finished with 306 passing yards, led the team with 46 rushing yards and captured fans' attention for days after the game had ended.
"It was gutsy. It really was. It's one of those things that -- a guy like him who works hard at what he does, he creates an opportunity for himself," Rivera said. "We'll see what happens. I was just very proud of what he did, coming out and competing the way he did and helping us get where we are today."
Most Improved: Montez Sweat
It is hard to believe that Montez Sweat could improve on what was a solid rookie season, but that is exactly what the former first-round pick did. He led the team with nine sacks and had 20 quarterback hits. He had six pass deflections, one of which he caught and returned for a touchdown against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving.
Most Underappreciated: Daron Payne
Daron Payne does not get as much attention as Sweat or Young, but he still had an impressive season by recording at least 50 tackles for the third consecutive season. He forced three fumbles, recovered one and had his first-career interception against the Seattle Seahawks. In the Wild Card round, his forced fumble ultimately led to Heinicke's rushing touchdown.
Best Free Agent: Logan Thomas
Washington took several gambles with its free agents this offseason, but none paid off quite like Logan Thomas. After flashing potential since switching from quarterback to tight end, Thomas emerged as one of Washington's most reliable pass-catchers with 670 yards and six touchdowns. Washington has not had a tight end put together that kind of production since Jordan Reed had 680 yards in 2016.
Best Position Coach: John Matsko
Offensive line coach John Matsko has coached some quality position groups in his multiple decades of experience, and he did it again in his first season with Washington. Despite working with four starting quarterbacks this season, the offensive line's PFF pass-blocking grade of 77.6 was third in the NFL. Brandon Scherff was also voted to his fourth Pro Bowl in six seasons and was a first-team All-Pro selection for the first time in his career.
The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect the opinion of the team.