In this unprecedented COVID season filled with empty stadiums, cancellations, and name changes, there is a lot to be happy about as a fan of the Football Team. Under first year head coach Ron Rivera, Washington rode a strong defense and emerging young talent on offense to capture its first division title and playoff appearance since 2015. Although they benefited greatly from a weak NFC East division, winning only seven games to secure the title, it is a great achievement nonetheless. While the season did not culminate with a deep playoff run, losing a playoff game to Tom Brady is not something for a young team to hang its head on. With a strong culture seemingly in place, and youth on its side, the future looks bright for Washington. However, this is not to say there is not room for improvement. Quarterback struggles plagued this team, severely hindering the success of what is quickly becoming a solid all-around team.
Many factors played into the Football Team having the level of success that they did. This season recap will be split into three different parts, starting with the surprises and overachievers from this past season. Next week, we will dive into the disappointments from last season, followed by a piece on the 2021 outlook for the team with free agency and the draft approaching quickly.
Although I mentioned quarterback as the primary weakness of this team, the display of determination and toughness for QB Alex Smith to not only return this year, but to perform at a high level and will his team into the playoffs is truly remarkable. Smith suffered a gruesome leg injury in 2018 that put his playing career, and even his life, in jeopardy. After 18 surgeries and 2+ years of rehab, Smith was able to come in mid-season due to an injury to starting QB Kyle Allen and outperform even the wildest of expectations. The team went 5-1 in the games that he started, sparking their improbable playoff berth. This is truly an inspiring story to anyone, and Smith will surely be rewarded with Comeback Player of the Year honors at the NFL Award Ceremony.
With the defense being the primary driving force behind a successful 2020 season, it is important not to overlook the two rising stars on the offensive end. Wide Receiver Terry McLaurin has emerged in his second season as a true wide receiver and the top passing target in this offense. This year, he paired his strong hands (3 drops/134 targets) with elite route running skills. Even with shaky quarterback play throughout the year, McLaurin consistently torched his opponents, setting a career high in receptions, and eclipsing 1,000 yards for the first time in his young career. Now established as a top receiver in the game, expect big things from Scary Terry in the future.
Rookie running back Antonio Gibson is a young talent who helped rejuvenate Washington’s rushing attack this season. A third round pick out of Memphis, he flashed the same explosiveness and knack for the end zone that he had in college. In only 10 starts, while also splitting time with pass-catching back J.D. McKissic, Gibson rushed for nearly 800 yards and 11 touchdowns. He co-led all rookie running backs in touchdowns, highlighted by his 115 yard, 3 touchdown masterpiece against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day. Only 22 years old, Gibson should continue to get better and grow into the lead back role.
Finally, the 2020 defensive unit exceeded all expectations that had been placed upon them coming into the season. With much of the noise being centered around the talented Dallas Cowboys, or 2018 champions, the Eagles, the Football Team went largely under the radar. However, new additions on the defensive line and secondary paired with aging talent made this a cohesive unit.
No addition was bigger than second overall pick Chase Young out of Ohio State. A game changing pass rusher, he had an instant impact, recording 7.5 sacks in his rookie year. Young, paired with second-year defensive end Montez Sweat and veteran Ryan Kerrigan, contributed to a dominant front four that stifled the run and pressured the quarterback all year. With some nifty late-round draft picks such as safety Kamren Curl to shore up the secondary, this team developed a dominant defense by mid season, capable of winning even the toughest games. After a difficult 1-5 start, signature wins began to pile up, with defense being Washington’s calling card for success.
In two late-season road wins that catapulted them ahead of the Giants for good in the NFC East race, it was game changing plays from the defense that made the difference. Against Pittsburgh, a key interception halted the Steelers as they attempted to put together a game winning drive. Against San Francisco, two defensive touchdowns for the Football Team proved to be too much for the 49ers to overcome.
With a stalling offense for much of the year due to the inconsistencies at quarterback, the defense carried the team through much of the year, and deserve the most credit for the division title. With many of these key defensive players being so young, Washington is set up to have a formidable unit for the foreseeable future.
The disappointments of the season – what could’ve gone better.