WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM 2020 SEASON PREVIEW
Last season was Washington’s worst since 2013, and only their fourth campaign with three or fewer wins in 60 years. Jay Gruden was on borrowed time having only made the playoffs once in five attempts and was swiftly relieved of duties after an abysmal 0-5 start. Interim coach Bill Callahan, whose only head coaching experience was a disastrous spell with Oakland, was credited with instilling some modicum of consistency and effort, but went 3-8 nonetheless.
Given that the team were so uncompetitive, all eyes were on when first round pick Dwayne Haskins would take over the reins at QB. But Gruden and then Callahan were inexplicably reluctant to blood the rookie. The Ohio State star was poor in relief early on and had a slow start to his NFL career, dogged by over-thinking and timing issues. But he rallied late and impressed many with his competitiveness, elusiveness in the pocket, and arm strength down the stretch.
Haskins finished the season strongly – in his last 2 starts he completed 74% of his passes for 394 yards, 4 touchdowns and no interceptions. Rookie WR Terry McLaurin was a bright spot (58 catches for 919 yards and 7 scores) in what was a year to forget in DC.
“All change please”. The departure of villainous team president Bruce Allen precipitated wholesale changes in Ashburn, including the somewhat surprising arrival of former Panthers coach Ron Rivera. Rivera, twice coach of the year in Carolina, was introduced by Dan Snyder in a bizarre press conference (‘Happy Thanksgiving!’), to muted excitement…
Washington fans have seen this so called ceding of power to a coach-centric approach before (see Shanahan) and will wisely reserve judgement as to whether Snyder will truly remain hands-off, but there’s no doubting that signing Rivera was a real coup. Rivera, who had been sold on the opportunity by 3 time Super Bowl winning, Hall Of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, moved quickly to install his preferred staff, including Jack Del Rio as defensive co-ordinator and Scott Turner (son of former Washington HC Norv) as offensive co-ordinator.
Washington held the second overall pick in April’s virtual draft. And despite rumours of considering Alabama star Tua Tagovailoa, the team picked the consensus best graded player in the draft; Ohio State edge rusher Chase Young.
Young broke sack records for Ohio State (16.5) despite missing two games, and Washington will hope the unanimous All-American has a similar impact on their defense as fellow Buckeye alum Nick Bosa in San Francisco.
Seven time pro-bowl LT Trent Williams was finally traded (enough ink has been spilled on that subject). The team spent some draft capital on potential offensive weapons for Haskins including RB/WR Antonio Gibson (Memphis) and WR Anthony Gandy-Golden (Liberty). And amongst their bigger free agent signings were ex-Panther Thomas Davis (presumably mostly as a veteran presence) and safety Sean Davis to play alongside Landon Collins.
There were raised eyebrows in DC when Rivera didn’t hand the reins to promising young play-caller Kevin O’Connell, who has since teamed up with Sean McVay in LA. Instead, Rivera gave the job to Scott Turner. Familiarity seems like the key for Rivera at this stage, and Turner gets his big break and a chance to work with a young Washington offense led by second year QB Dwayne Haskins.
There are plenty of question marks over the unit though, which was dead last in ‘offensive snaps with a lead’ in 2019. It remains to be seen whether Derrius Guice can stay healthy enough to play a kind of Christian McCaffery role, or if any of the team’s young receivers can step up and contribute opposite star second year wideout Terry McLaurin. With limited options at tight end and an offensive line finally, officially bereft of 7 time pro-bowl stalwart Trent Williams, Turner has his work cut out.
Much rides on Haskins development. He looks in exceptional shape this off-season having lost more weight. And with no question marks over his work ethic there is now an air of confidence about the former Buckeye which will excite many in DC.
Learning yet another new offense, especially given the lack of face to face work in the reality of Covid-19, will be difficult however. And with Kyle Allen (brought in by Rivera as nominal competition) breathing down his neck, there is a lot of pressure on Haskins to perform. Whether he can handle it and prove his 1st round worth is an intriguing storyline.
The team’s best unit is undoubtedly their defensive front. This features fourth-year Alabama DT and locker room leader Jon Allen, third-year Alabama DT Da’Ron Payne, surprise breakout sack leader in 2019 Matt Ioannidis (8.5), second-year edge rusher Montez Sweat, and second overall pick Chase Young.
Veteran OLB and consummate pro Ryan Kerrigan remains on the roster and can provide invaluable tutelage to Young and Sweat. He’ll also be an exceptional rotational pass rush under Jack Del Rio’s scheme (music to the ears of Washington fans who have long suspected that a switch to a 4-3 base would better fit their personnel). Can Chase Young can provide an immediate elite impact and elevate his teammates, a la Nick Bosa in San Francisco? Watch this space.
There remain considerable question marks over the secondary and linebacking corps. Rookie ‘backer Cole Holcomb was excellent last season, but the team was last in third down defense in spite of all that talent up front. Many analytics folk have pointed to a middling secondary as the reason for this. Washington did re-sign ex-CB Kendall Fuller, who, complete with Super Bowl ring, can make an immediate impact back in DC. But the unit will have to improve significantly (or rely on an improved pass rush) to rise up the rankings.
Washington face an uphill battle for relevancy in the NFC East under Rivera in year one, and the season should be perceived as a rebuild first and foremost. The continued development of Dwayne Haskins and emergence of other young talent is the primary focus for a team in the midst of transformation on and off the field. Rivera’s first season in Washington can be limited in terms of wins on the field but considered a success if Haskins cements himself as the franchise quarterback for the future, and the defense improves under Del Rio, especially on third down. Doubling the meagre 3 win total from a year ago is feasible and acceptable.
2020 The Washington Football Team record prediction:
6-10 (3rd in the NFC East)