Kevin Pierre-Louis has been on more than a few teams -- five of them, in fact -- during his seven years in the NFL, and he can recognize when a good thing is starting to happen.
In 2014, Pierre-Louis was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks, who were just three months removed from winning Super Bowl XLVIII, in the fourth round. Nearly a year later, the Seahawks were back in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots.
In 2017, he was signed by the Kansas City Chiefs, who had won the AFC West in the previous season. They repeated that performance in Pierre-Louis' only season with the team by winning their last four games of the regular season.
Fast forward to now, and the Washington Football Team finished head coach Ron Rivera's first season by winning the NFC East for the first time since 2015. It was disappointing to lose a hard-fought 31-23 game to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but Pierre-Louis and his teammates are feeling the team start to turn a corner.
"I think Coach Rivera is doing everything that he can to create a clear standard for this organization," Pierre-Louis said. "It's something that is tough to build, and we're getting there. Being able to witness that and see that, as I was a part of one before, is very recognizable."
It should already be considered an accomplishment that Washington more than doubled its win total from 2019, but there were multiple chances for the 2020 season to be even more of a success. After losing 30-10 to the Los Angeles Rams, its next five losses came by a combined 19 points. It was in position to either tie or take the lead in all of those games.
That is not even mentioning that it went blow-for-blow with Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who possessed a top 10 offense and defense. There was also a chance for the team to tie the score with nearly four minutes left to play.
As encouraging as that is, the fact remains that Washington did not come up on the winning side, so the only thing it can do is learn from those situations. That is exactly what Kendall Fuller said the Kansas City Chiefs did after his first season with the team in 2018. They lost in overtime to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship that year despite having MVP Patrick Mahomes. One year later, the Chiefs were celebrating a Super Bowl victory.
"Look at the way we fought all year and the way we competed all year," Fuller said. "We are definitely heading in the right direction, heading in the right trend. We are just going to come in in the offseason and work hard, keep on following coach Rivera, keep on buying into the system and the culture and just keep on going out there and competing and trying to win ball games."
It helps that the core of players Rivera set to establish in his first season will be intact for next year. Terry McLaurin, although he dealt with a high ankle sprain for the final month of the season, finished 13th in the league with 1,118 yards. Chase Young turned out to be what Washington expected him to be. Logan Thomas grew into a quality tight end, and Kamren Curl surprised many by being a capable starting safety.
Several new questions have popped up for Washington; there is uncertainty at the quarterback position, and Rivera himself has said the team needs a middle linebacker. And yet, veterans like Morgan Moses are encouraged by the franchise's direction.
"I think the future is bright," Moses said after the game. "We've got a lot of great players. I wish we could've gotten it done today. We fell a little short. The future is bright. I feel great about the players that we have, and I feel great about the building that we'll be doing in this offseason, bringing in new players in the draft and those things. I look forward to it."
Players were not the only ones who experienced growth; coaches like offensive coordinator Scott Turner, who was a full-time play-caller for the first time in 2020, also got more comfortable in their roles, and that improvement was clear as his offense put up 375 yards against the No. 6-ranked Buccaneers' defense with a backup quarterback. Turner's progress was fun to watch, Rivera said, and he can see Turner taking steps toward being a quality coach.
"To watch Scotty know how or to see how to use players and to load them up or scale back -- that was excellent," Rivera said. "How to attack and then to adjust in a game I thought was great, it really was. There were a lot of great things. I just know there's going to be continued growth. I'm excited for the future of our offense as well."
The defense finished the regular season second in total yards, but there were signs that the unit can get "crazy better," according to Young. It allowed only 191.8 passing yards per game, but big plays plagued the secondary all year. There were flashes of what Washington could do against the run, but it still averaged 112 yards per game. Still, the team has players like Young and Fuller to build around, which should provide a blueprint for improvement.
"This is just the beginning with Coach Rivera and Coach Jack Del Rio," Young said. "I think it's going to be scary for the years to come. We're not letting our foot off the gas."
The offseason is a time for reflection, and there is certainly plenty for Washington to look at between now and September. But it is also time to look ahead and build on what was established in the previous season. Rivera built a foundation in 2020, and after three months of the wildest regular season in NFL history, it turned out to be a strong one. Now, the team isn't looking anywhere but up.
"We've got some really special guys," Rivera said. "This group, I think if we can grow and learn together and add on a couple more pieces, I think we have a shot next year. It'll be fun to watch. I'm just glad that we were able to give the DMV something to cheer about. I promise you one thing, like I said, we'll show up and we'll play hard."