Ron Rivera brought some much-needed pride and respectability to the Washington Football Team in 2020. He took his team from worst to first in the NFC East against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and his own battle with skin cancer.
Off the field, owner Dan Snyder remained in the headlines for the wrong reasons, but Rivera created hope for this franchise on it. Granted, his 2020 team only won seven games, but there are enough reasons to believe Washington will continue to grow on Rivera’s watch. Those reasons include a formidable defense. The unit relied on a deep and talented defensive line rotation to rank fourth in points allowed and second in yards surrendered.
Things weren’t as rosy on offense, where Rivera cycled through quarterbacks. Dwayne Haskins got the job, tanked, and was eventually released. Kyle Allen couldn’t stay healthy, while Alex Smith‘s miraculous comeback was all too brief. However, Rivera might have found his new quarterback in the form of Taylor Heinicke. The former XFL passer thrived when Washington pushed Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers all the way in the Wild Card round.
What Went Right
A defensive line loaded with first-round picks played up to its billing. Young and co. accounted for 32 of Washington’s 47 sacks. The defense sacked Carson Wentz eight times during Week 1’s 27-17 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Washington was on the path to winning a weak NFC East.
Defense is the best reason to believe Rivera’s men can repeat the feat in 2021. More talent is needed at linebacker and safety, but the star-studded line will continue to be a force.
What Went Wrong
Rivera has already admitted that he regrets giving Haskins to keys to the kingdom so early. That’s an honest admission from a coach let down by a young quarterback who didn’t take his chance.
Haskins is no longer on the team, but matters are far from simplified. Allen’s season ended with a leg injury against the New York Giants in Week 9. It was a blow since Allen had the most intimate knowledge of coordinator Scott Turner‘s offense from their days with Rivera and the Carolina Panthers.
Fortunately, Smith managed a remarkable return from the gruesome leg break suffered in 2018. The veteran is easily the best quarterback on the roster, but at 36 and hobbled by injuries, Smith is understandably unsure about his future.
Team Award Winners
MVP – J.D. McKissic
McKissic may be a surprising choice to some, but no player on the roster offered Washington more value for money. He arrived as a low-key free agent who had already done the rounds with two other teams.
The running back room didn’t appear to have space for McKissic, especially not when third-round pick Gibson offered similar dual-threat skills with a background as a wide receiver, good hands, and breakaway speed.
McKissic relished the competition. He finished second on the team with 80 catches and third in receiving yards with 589. McKissic also rushed for 365 yards on 85 carries.
— Washington Commanders (@Commanders) December 28, 2020
Add in four touchdowns, and that’s serious bang for your buck from a player who counted for just $1.61 million against the cap in 2020.
Offensive Rookie of the Year – Antonio Gibson
Gibson missed time with turf toe late in the season, but he’d already done enough to become Washington’s featured back. Drafted as a conversion project expected to do for Rivera what Curtis Samuel had done in Carolina, Gibson rushed for 795 yards and 11 scores. He proved he can take the beating necessary to be a workhorse. Gibson also showed his worth as a receiver by catching 36 passes for 247 yards.
Defensive Rookie of the Year – Chase Young
No disrespect to Kamren Curl, but this was never going to be anybody but Young. He didn’t always hit the afterburners, but when he did, Young usually made something happen in a key moment. He displayed instincts and a knack for splash plays that belied his inexperience.
Chase Young not fooled at all by the read option 😤 @youngchase907 @WashingtonNFL
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) January 4, 2021
The next step in Young’s development is to bump up his stats. 7.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, and 12 QB hits are respectable numbers, but Young is capable of more. Even without the numbers, he is already a player offenses need special plans to contain.
Biggest Surprise – Logan Thomas
Rivera looked as though he dropped a clanger when he cut Richard Rodgers and made Logan Thomas the starting tight end. Granted, Thomas had displayed sneaky athleticism for the Detroit Lions in 2019, but he was still a former quarterback learning a new position.
Thomas not only defied expectations. He became one of Washington’s few big-play threats in the passing game. A haul of 72 catches for 670 yards and six touchdowns offers ample proof that Thomas is a tight end on the rise. He’s going to be a go-to target for whoever plays quarterback for Washington in 2021.
Biggest Disappointment – Dwayne Haskins
Steven Sims would have had this award all to himself had Haskins not gone from starter to unemployed in less than a season. Sims dropped too many passes and didn’t make enough of an impact as a runner. Haskins crashed and burned, but a lack of potent weapons wasn’t much of an excuse. He threw three interceptions during a defeat to the Cleveland Browns in Week 3. Haskins also took 20 of the 50 sacks Washington allowed. His decision-making from the pocket was slow and reckless.
The writing was on the wall before Week 15, but two interceptions against the Seattle Seahawks, followed by a pair of picks against the Panthers, ultimately closed the book on the Haskins era.
One Burning Question
Who is the starting quarterback in 2021?
Rivera is no longer tethered to the idea Haskins will come good, so maybe this is the offseason for a reunion with Cam Newton. However, thhe ideal scenario would be Smith returning. His smarts and efficiency are ideal for an offense based on manufacturing yards after the catch for versatile playmakers in space.
Heinicke’s late-season performances add another variable to the mix. He lacks in the experience department, but Heinicke knows this coaching staff and how to make big plays.
What a performance by Taylor Heinicke on #SuperWildCard Weekend.
— NFL (@NFL) January 11, 2021
Washington could save a bundle by handing Heinicke the reins. It would leave free agency dollars available to sign the accomplished wide receiver this offense needs. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Allen Robinson could be Rivera’s prime targets.
Follow James Dudko on Twitter @JamesDudko
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