Despite a 6-9 record and abundant turmoil, they have made this season an undisputed success. And in their regular season finale Sunday night in Philadelphia, they’re still digging for the unexpected treasure of an NFC East title. We are predisposed to laughing at playoff teams with terrible records, but several great NFL runs have begun with “unworthy” squads sneaking into the playoffs. Washington could be next in line for such a springboard, and even if it loses to the Eagles, its new status as a franchise with momentum wouldn’t be tarnished.
This is why Rivera keeps referring to the “house money” aspect of his team’s pursuit. Perhaps a nothing-to-lose sentiment will keep his developing group composed and motivated to overcome injury attrition and win the most important game of a new era.
“The truth of the matter is we’re playing with house money,” Rivera said. “That’s the best part about it. Nobody expected us to be here. I just feel that it’s great. These guys deserve it after the year we’ve been through, the last few years.”
Hey, whatever inspires effort to capture a low-bar championship, right?
Let’s hope this is just optimistic spin, though. Anything else would be dangerously naive. Rivera has put Washington in a solid initial position. But he must know, as should everyone who has endured this organization’s uselessness for the past two decades, that a good start doesn’t afford much comfort in Washington. With Daniel Snyder in charge, it can complicate as much as it can propel.
With Snyder amid the battle of his ownership tenure, the pressure and uncertainty intensify even as the on-field product shows signs of stabilizing. This is not the problem of Rivera or his players or his staff, but it is their burden. And it leaves a sense that while Washington has made admirable progress already, it needs the symbolic feat of making the playoffs more than other franchises that have been in this situation.
They are playing with house money in the strangest of casinos. They can’t trust what this currency is actually worth. They can’t ever feel secure in the promise of the future, not without constant and incremental maintenance of it in the present.
A 7-9 division title and playoff berth would mean more than fleeting satisfaction. Washington could use the legitimacy of it and the possible matchup against Tom Brady and Tampa Bay. Without question, it must crave the patience it should garner from Snyder. It’s just a single victory, and the likelihood of a one-and-done playoff disappearance would be high. But one last triumph would make some of the gray area about the team’s progress more distinct.
It’s the closest Rivera could come to leaving no doubt during a period of reconstruction, which is never a time of absolute clarity. Realistically, no one should have expected much more from this team, even though it lost several frustratingly close games. A 16-game football season is a self-balancing phenomenon. The stunning victories and deflating losses usually average out to a true representation of a team’s identity.
Get swept by the New York Giants, then beat the unbeaten Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s how it goes. Washington lost three games by three points or fewer and came within a touchdown of two others. It may feel that a 34-20 Week 3 loss to Cleveland was winnable if Dwayne Haskins, the now discarded first-round quarterback, had managed the game properly. But the parity-driven NFL is a one-possession league. Most every team has those opportunities. The good ones come through; the bad always lament what if.
All honest views reveal Washington is as 6-9 as it gets. But coming off a 3-13 disaster that necessitated a coaching and front-office overhaul, Rivera has achieved plenty in doubling the win total (harder than it seems in this league) and keeping the team just competitive enough to capitalize on a weak division that guaranteed it would play meaningful games all season.
But what makes the season an obvious success is not the overall results and the win-and-in playoff opportunity the players have Sunday. It’s the fact that the defense, with a front full of first-round picks, has finally come together and given the team a dominant strength that opponents must respect. Actually, it might be wise for opponents to fear this defense, considering how it can mangle offensive lines and abuse quarterbacks. Chase Young and Co. have grown into a legitimate top-five unit, with a quality coordinator in Jack Del Rio manning the controls and considerable potential to improve with continuity. The defense can get better without the team spending recklessly in free agency or drafting in desperation. It gives the personnel department the freedom to focus heavily on much-needed offensive upgrades this offseason.
Of course, for this franchise, even an optimistic path is an uncertain one. Even a year of progress nearly came undone many times. The challenges have been difficult: Rivera coaching while fighting cancer; the coronavirus pandemic ruining the traditional offseason program; Snyder and past executives embroiled in a sexual harassment and misconduct scandal; and Haskins becoming a bust in less than two seasons. But with Rivera leading the way and Alex Smith returning from a devastating injury to add presence and leadership, there have been plenty of inspirational moments.
One big question remains: Can Washington finish? An inability to finish troubled some of Jay Gruden’s more hopeful years. An inability to finish made the franchise decide to not commit big money to former quarterback Kirk Cousins. Snyder is not a sophisticated owner. He’s notoriously emotional. He will frame this season around its ending. How it ends either locks in two more years of patience — which is essential because, for all the progress, this team still doesn’t have a long-term starting quarterback — or leaves a loose end.
It shouldn’t be that way. But you should never leave any loose ends with Snyder.
On Sunday night in Philadelphia, there is more urgency than Rivera is willing to place on his players. Under Snyder, Washington has a two-decade sample size of failing at grasping process. Losing this game wouldn’t doom this encouraging new era, but winning would do something just as important as expediting the effort. One more victory would protect it.