Four weeks ago, the Washington Football Team was preparing itself to face the defending NFC East champions the Philadelphia Eagles.
The excitement for the beginning of the new era under Head Coach Ron Rivera was tangible, and expectations for second-year QB Dwayne Haskins were high following a very public offseason of work-out videos, weight loss and improved work ethic.
Now, the whole direction of the franchise looks different, as Dwayne Haskins has been benched and the much trumpeted “long-term rebuild” appears to have been replaced with a shorter-term goal of winning an atrocious NFC East.
This piece would have a very different slant were it not for the benching of the 2019 first-round pick who has now apparently been consigned to the list of failed Washington QB’s after 13 starts. The first four weeks would have been broken down with a view to how the team, and the offense in particular, could progress with their young QB following a rocky opening month. Instead, they must now be looked at in the context that the change has been made and those games judged with that end outcome in mind.
A Team In Progress
Washington is 1-3 and realistically, with two 2019 divisional champions on the early slate, the record itself is not a disaster. Of course, the lone victory was the opening, come from behind triumph against the Eagles and has been followed by three consecutive defeats. Of those three defeats, two were fairly comprehensive double digit losses, and the other, at Cleveland, while also a double digit loss, was a far more competitive game where the outcome was in doubt until midway through the final period.
As expected, given the inexperienced nature of the roster, the level of performance across the board has been inconsistent. The development of the team on both sides of the ball will take time as the new coaching staff almost has to evaluate players on the fly due to the lack of off-season workouts and preseason games. The coaches are still finding out the strengths and weaknesses of individual players and units and in many ways the first 4 games have acted like a mini preseason.
There have been many encouraging signs, punctuated with the obvious anticipated areas of concern. Areas that were expected to be strengths have proven to be so, and generally speaking the areas of concern have played followed the expected script. That is obviously a sweeping generalization, so let’s take a closer look at how the team has performed through the first 4 weeks.
We may as well address the elephant in the room first. Dwayne Haskins has not played as well as hoped or expected. His last 2 or 3 games of 2019 combined with his positive off-season created the expectation that he was ready to step up and become a franchise QB. An entire piece could be devoted to the rights and wrongs of benching Haskins after 4 games, and clearly he was statistically among the bottom couple of QB’s in the league, which is not a recipe for a successful offense. He has consistently failed to execute the offense, and has failed to raise the level of the players around him.
There are of course mitigating factors that contribute to Haskins performances, but he has failed to make plays and raise his own performance levels in the way that true franchise QB’s do.
The offensive line hasn’t been great, but it also hasn’t been disastrous, so the blame for the lack of performance cannot be entirely placed at their door. Morgan Moses has played extremely well, Chase Roullier has been solid and Wes Schweitzer has been serviceable when called upon. Unfortunately, Brandon Scherff suffered another injury and both Geron Christian and Wes Martin have had their issues. It’ll be interesting to see if Keith Ismael and Saahdiq Charles get onto the field over the next few weeks. Haskins has often created his own problems due to a seeming lack of pocket presence or awareness, sometimes moving into pressure. It’s tough to apportion all the blame to the offensive line, which although below average, has not been the total sieve that many feared.
Wide Receivers and Running Backs
The offensive skill players, bar Terry McLaurin were an area of concern before the season, and through four weeks those fears have been well-founded. McLaurin has been nothing short of outstanding and encouragingly, the role of Antonio Gibson seems to be growing on a weekly basis. Gibson had 17 total touches for over 120 yards and a touchdown last week and it seems clear that Scott Turner is trying to work him into the offense as much as possible.
Outside of that, the cupboard has been fairly bare, although JD McKissic has had some nice plays and Logan Thomas has played like a serviceable Tight End. Rookie Antonio Gandy-Golden may be set for more opportunities now the disappointing Steven Sims Jr has been moved to IR but he is very much a work in progress.
So, that’s the players, how does the system itself look under new coordinator Scott Turner? Compared to the plodding, ponderous offense of 2019, Turner’s 2020 scheme is like a breath of fresh air. Sure, it is limited by the personnel, but Turner is being creative, up tempo and particularly in the last 2 weeks, seems to be finding his groove. The stats back this up as Washington has significantly increased its number of plays per game, moving from the bottom of the league to 18th at 65.5 per game, and rank 4th in the league with 21.2% snap motion, illustrating the desire to be less predictable. However, the offense ranks among the bottom five in most of the main productivity categories including yards gained. The conflicting data suggest that the system is not the problem, rather the execution hasn’t been up to scratch. The offense is clearly a work in progress and the coaches feel that the best way to increase its efficiency is to change the QB.
A Look at the Defense
Defensively, Washington has been something of a contradiction in many ways. A number of key metrics suggest that the unit is performing reasonably well, including an overall DVOA of 4th and coming in 7th for opponents yards allowed per game, yet Washington has conceded 30 points in 3 out of 4 games so far. There are mitigating factors including being forced to defend short fields on occasion, particularly against Cleveland and Arizona, but the unit remains inconsistent.
The strength of the team, as expected has been the defensive line. The week one demolition of the Eagles offensive line leading to 8 sacks set the bar very high, and while those lofty heights haven’t quite been reached every week, Washington is still number one in sack rate. Chase Young, in the 2 full games he’s played, has been as good as advertised, Montez Sweat appears to have moved up a level, and Daron Payne has been a beast in the middle of the line. Unfortunately the injury bug has bitten, with Young missing the best part of half the four games and Matt Ioannidis being lost for the season.
The linebackers have been functional, although still struggling consistently in coverage, along with the safeties. Washington has allowed 25 catches and 5 TD’s to TE’s so far which has been problematic, offering a safety valve to QB’s who may be under pressure from the defensive line.
Perhaps the most difficult unit to assess is the secondary, which has seen some above average play in certain quarters but some significantly below average play in other areas. Starting with the positives, in the last two weeks Kendall Fuller has returned to the lineup and had as many interceptions (2) as catches allowed and has an overall cover grade of 87.3% according to PFF, good enough for third in the league. Fabian Moreau began the season well and was one of PFF’s top rated corners after 3 weeks, but he wasn’t on the field at all defensively in week 4 even in nickel packages as Jimmy Moreland and Kam Curl have shouldered the load in recent weeks. The corners have been generally solid.
The Safety position has been somewhat of a problem all season as training camp darling Troy Apke has looked lost at times and Landon Collins has done little to justify the high price tag that accompanied his move to Washington. The pair don’t seem to be operating as a unit and far too many big plays have been allowed, particularly in the first couple of weeks.
Overall, despite the inconsistency, the defense hasn’t been bad, and certainly isn’t the teams biggest problem. Clearly the flow of points needs to be addressed, with improved tackling also being required, although that seems to be a league wide problem.
Like many young, developing teams, periods of solid play have been wasted by blown assignments (Collins v Arizona for Hopkins opening touchdown), turnovers at key moments (Sims punt return fumble vs. Arizona, Haskins strip sack vs. Arizona and multiple picks vs. Cleveland) and a lack of execution at key moments. Most NFL games are won and lost in a few key moments, and until Washington comes out on the right side of these defining plays, more games will be lost than won.
Overall, Washington is about where many people expected them to be at this point, which is to say they are very much a work in progress. The offense has been blunt, but more often than not that has been down to execution and lack of playmakers rather than the system itself. There should be considerable optimism that given time, practice and the emergence of players like Gibson to complement McLaurin, the creative offensive schemes of Scott Turner will bear fruit.
Defensively, the mental errors and tackling need to improve, and hopefully they won’t be forced to defend some of the short fields that have faced them too often in the seasons early weeks. However, the defense has been OK for the most part but with clear scope for improvement.
The coaching philosophy has been interesting over the opening month of the season. Coach Rivera made it clear on numerous occasions leading up to the season that the development of the team is a long-term process, but the events of the last week suggest that the philosophy may have changed. The failure to call timeout in weeks 2 and 3 in the final minutes of those games created much discussion, but generally seems to have been accepted given the longer term vision espoused by Rivera. The supposed opportunity to challenge for a division title has now created a U-turn, and who is to say that challenging for the playoffs might not bring on the development of the team. That’s a discussion for another article!
It’s important not to be too narrow focused and blinkered when assessing the first 4 weeks of the season. This team is clearly some distance from being a powerhouse, and has holes aplenty. Mistakes and head scratching moments have happened and will continue to happen, but there are enough positives to suggest that the team is moving in the right direction.
Check out our other content from Full Press Coverage Washington!
- BREAKING: Weeks 5 Washington Football Team Inactives
- Haskins Experiment Over in DC?
- It is Time to “Free Antonio Gibson”
- Five ways to get the best out of Dwayne Haskins in 2020