TAKING STOCK: WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM
In the taking stock series, I’ll be zeroing in on each individual postseason NFL team. Getting to the playoffs is the bare minimum goal of any football franchise, but each year the brackets vary dramatically. Five of the 12 teams that made it to the postseason in 2019-20 did not return in 2020-21. And that was with an expanded bracket adding an extra team in each conference.
That number was not an aberration. Five of the 2018-19 playoff teams did not make it back the following year. In fact, in the last two seasons both teams that lost the Super Bowl (the Los Angeles Rams in 18-19 and San Francisco 49ers 19-20), did not get the chance to defend their titles. It’s something for the Kansas City Chiefs to ponder.
Every team takes its own journey to the postseason and that, maybe more than anything, has much to do with missing the playoffs the very next year. The 49ers were hit by a ton of injuries to pretty much all their key players in 2020. In 2019, the Rams couldn’t overcome Jared Goff’s leveling out at QB and Todd Gurley’s knee problems. Los Angeles adapted and overcame it this year, putting together a Wild Card playoff run and made it to the NFC Divisional Round. There’s no reason to think San Francisco won’t be able to do the same next season. Especially if they, like the Rams did just a week or so ago, upgrade their QB.
But we’re not talking about the Rams and Niners here. We’re starting at the bottom of the NFL playoff bracket, focusing in on a team and what it needs to do to get back to the postseason and maybe hang around for a while.
WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM
2020-21 record: 7-9 (NFC East Champion)
Playoffs: Lost 31-23 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Wild Card Round
HOW THEY CAN MAKE IT BACK
Here’s what’s important when you judge the Washington Football Team and their division championship losing record. It was all based on QB play and once they stabilized that position, with NFL Comeback Player of the Year Alex Smith taking over, it was no longer a problem. Smith went 5-1 as a starter for WFT, completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 2,180 yards, 10 touchdowns and five interceptions. If he’d been healthy all season, Washington would have been a 10-win football team.
Smith could retire and has certainly earned the right to do so, but in a recent interview he doesn’t sound like a guy that’s ready to hang up his six shooter. Smith is still under contract with the WFT for the next two seasons. He’ll earn $24.4 million in 2021-22 and $26.4 million in 2022-23 and is absolutely worth it. For Washington, he’s a proven starter, a playoff veteran and winner and the numbers he put up last year in his first NFL action in nearly two full seasons speak for themselves.
His understudy isn’t too bad either, Taylor Heinicke, who Washington just signed to a two-year, $8.75 million contract. Heinicke played toe-to-toe with Tom Brady in the WFT’s playoff game with the Bucs, completing 59.1 percent of his passes for 305 yards, one touchdown and one pick. He also rushed for 46 yards and a TD.
Is Heineicke the WFT’s future? It’s too early to say. Will they win more games with him in 2021 than with Smith? I don’t see that happening. Keeping Heinicke is the right move, but bringing back Smith is how Washington solidifies itself as a playoff contender.
Washington finished the year with the No. 4 overall defense in the NFL. Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young recorded 7.5 sacks, with Montez Sweat getting nine and Ryan Kerrigan rolling up 5.5.
Kerrigan specifically is due to hit free agency as is starting cornerback Ronald Darby. There’s no reason to franchise these guys, but you certainly want to bring them back if you can.
The free agent they literally can’t afford to lose in guard Brandon Scherff, who recorded an 84.1 PFF grade in 2020 and allowed just three sacks in the entire season.
Washington’s wide receiver corps was one of the weakest in the league in 2020, with Terry McLaurin putting up the only season worth mentioning (87 catches, 1,118 yards, four touchdowns). Luckily for them, free agency is awash with options to upgrade. Whether they want to spend money on a guy like the Bucs’ Chris Godwin or Chicago’s Allen Robinson or want to steal a budding star that was in too deep a WR room like the Rams’ Josh Reynolds, the 49ers’ Kendrick Bourne and Trent Taylor.
I would also not be afraid to kick the tires on a couple of loose former first rounders like Sammy Watkins, Breshad Perriman and Corey Davis even if a couple of them have underachieved. They’ve also never been coached up by Ron Rivera.
Regardless of what WFT does in free agency, they must enter the draft with the idea of nabbing a starting offensive lineman, preferably a tackle. Antonio Gibson played well at running back, but there are upgrades there in the second and third rounds and this is not the time to fall too in love with Taylor Heinicke. If one of the top QB prospects falls into Washington’s lap at No. 19, there’s no reason not to turn in that card and give him a chance. You can’t have too many good QBs on your team.
THE NFC EAST
The NFC East spent all of 2020 as the worst in football and that would have been true even if Smith had started all 16 games. What Smith’s late return did do is make the division competitive down to the final Sunday when the Philadelphia Eagles tossed in the towel against the WFT, costing the New York Giants a chance at the playoffs with a 6-10 record.
Eagles head coach Doug Pederson would get fired about a month later, but not for that. In fact, he set up new Philly head coach Nick Sirianni pretty good with the tank and the No. 6 overall pick.
The less said about the Dallas Cowboys the better, since Jerry Jones didn’t go ahead and fire Mike McCarthy this offseason, they will once again be mired in his horrid coaching for at least one more year.
This division, on the hole, should remain the worst in the league barring outright superheroics from Dak Prescott in his return from an ankle injury or a massive free agent haul and draft wins from the Giants.
WILL THE WFT MAKE IT BACK TO THE PLAYOFFS IN 2021-22?
I say yes. With a healthy Smith and a few roster upgrades, there’s no question that Washington should be favored to repeat as division champs and therefore make it back to the playoffs. Their closest competition is probably the Giants, but I feel like they have way more roster holes to fill.
The only thing that can derail back-to-back postseasons for Washington is Smith retiring or the team deciding they want to dump his cap number and take the $10 million hit. It wouldn’t be smart, not with the NFC East there for the taking once again.
Projected 2021-22 record: 10-6, NFC East Champion