It’s been almost a week since the Washington Football Team’s Wild Card performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The 31-23 Bucs victory was perhaps the most exciting game of a Wild Card weekend that was mixed with rivalry upsets, Nickelodeon blowouts and a defining moment for two franchises that have gone an eternity without playoff success.
It was a fantastic week of football in general, yet the game I’ll keep coming back to was our own. This was the first playoff game Washington has had since 2015, which ended like many others before it in a semi-close but not really close fashion against a far superior opponent. How ironic that the 7-9 2020 Football game gave us the best fight since the Todd Collins run in 2007. This was a truly inspiring performance by a team that most wrote off from the opening kickoff. I won’t fault anyone for that opinion, especially against a Bucs team with as much offensive firepower as anyone in the league.
Really, Washington had everything against them in this game. There was no reason to reasonably assume they actually had a chance to win this game with a fourth-string quarterback under center against an offense headlined by the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Yet here we are talking about a game that Washington legitimately had a chance to win. They showed the same fight and fire we’ve come to expect from this team, and they showed they belonged to be in that game. I’ve never been more inspired by a loss from this team in my life, I mean it was truly something special. There’s only one true place we can start when talking about this game though.
Taylor Heinicke has become a Washington hero
Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s only one game (a loss mind you), so throwing the label of “hero” on Heinicke feels hyperbolic, right? Well, not really, but I’ll explain.
There’s no reason Heinicke should have played the way that he did. I know I was talking him up more than I should for an undrafted rookie with one career start, but that small sample from the Carolina game showed me that he had a little bit of spunk to his game that could at least give us the ability to run the offense as it was intended. I didn’t expect to see him become Neo from The Matrix when avoiding the rush. I couldn’t believe how well this guy played on Saturday. It was just fun football. His touchdown run late in the third quarter was something I’ve never seen before from a Washington quarterback (and that includes RGIII).
Not only did he make a few highlight runs that in reality should have never happened because of the pressure he was facing, but Heinicke made genuinely great decisions as a passer for the entirety of the game. He doesn’t display a ton of zip on the ball, but the accuracy and touch he has on deep ball is really impressive. He was making sideline throws that I really didn’t think he could make going into this game. From the get-go, he was testing Tampa Bay’s defense and really forcing them into a bind of whether or not it was worth sending extra pressure his way at the expense of leaving him more room to air it out. It didn’t really matter, he was making things happen all the way up to the final drive.
The final drive did end in a bit of a letdown (the ruling on the McKissic fumble was pretty weak which didn’t help), but the fact that we were even in this game on that final drive was miraculous.
Heinicke was later revealed to have an AC joint sprain after taking a hit late in the game, but he somehow played through it and tossed up this beauty of a touchdown pass:
I was ready to throw Kirk Cousins money Heinicke’s way right then and there. Maybe that’s an overreaction (it is), but I’m sold on the guy. I’m 100% for getting another quarterback this offseason, but we have to bring this guy back for at least a competition. I don’t think you’re going to find a better backup option than this guy anyway. What he did on the field in the two games he played would be amazing for anybody, but it feels especially true for a guy that was literally only on the team for just over a month. Bring this man back and never let him leave.
The defense was straight-up outplayed
This is still a tough pill to swallow, but Tom Brady was surgical in his dominance over Jack Del Rio’s defense. Was I surprised? Honestly, a little. I knew this would be the biggest challenge this defense would face all season, but I actually thought they’d play a little better than that.
Not that it was all bad, and obviously when you’re going up against a team with four wide receivers that would be the No. 1 target on any other team next to a tight end like Rob Gronkowski, you can only expect so much.
Still, I was just hoping for a more “fuck it” type of energy from Del Rio. I wanted to send heavy pressure Brady’s way, and Del Rio seemed content with a four-man rush for the majority of the game. I get that he wanted to focus on stopping the big play over the top, but Brady was getting it anyway. I just would’ve liked to force him into quicker decisions rather than let him hang in the pocket for five seconds. Brady would’ve had success anyway, but you can’t convince me that selling out on the pass rush against any pure pocket-passer with that many weapons isn’t the best option.
There are positives in this one though. For starters, Da’Ron Payne gave us easily his best game of the season. He was brilliant all game. His stat line of two sacks, three QB hits and a crucial forced fumble that gave the team a second-half spark is about as good a stat line as it gets for an interior lineman.
Montez Sweat also pitched in a sack as well and finished with two QB hits of his own in another impressive outing from the sophomore edge-rusher.
Like I said, it wasn’t a completely terrible performance, but I just wish we saw them throw everything they possibly could at Brady. The play-calling was surprisingly conservative, and it absolutely led to this loss.
Antonio Gibson’s injury killed the run game
Man, this is another huge bummer that just made this more of an uphill battle than it already was.
Gibson has struggled with that turf toe ever since the Pittsburgh game, and you could see from the jump that he really wasn’t himself. Not that the line really gave him much to work with, but it felt pretty obvious that he was dealing with a significant amount of pain whenever he got a carry. He finished with just 31 yards on 14 carries, and with no one else stepping up to carry the load, it pretty much forced the offense to rely on Heinicke. Not that it ended up being a bad thing, but it’s hard to win any game when you become as one-dimensional as we had to be.
Both J.D. McKissic and Peyton Barber have given us solid contributions this season in very different ways, but it’s very obvious that neither of them can be an every down back in a pinch, and that ended up really hurting us on Saturday. I actually have a lot of questions about this position group going forward. I expect a healthy Gibson to continue to shine as our primary ball-carrier, and McKissic has absolutely earned the role as our third-down receiving back, but I wonder if they’ll keep Barber or look elsewhere for a more balanced short-yardage specialist.
I think it all depends on what this coaching staff thinks of Bryce Love. Love could never get right this year, which is very concerning considering he’s been out of action for two seasons now. Will he be the same Heisman-worthy runner that we saw at Stanford or is that simply a thing of the past? Who knows, I’d like to see him get a fair crack at some carries, but I just don’t know. Rivera has no ties to him, so maybe we’ll look for another young running back late in the draft or something. It’s definitely something to keep an eye on.
Looking ahead to the offseason
This is of course the last edition of Robservations of the season for me (although expect some offseason/draft talk coming up soon), and man what a journey it’s been. This season has been a roller coaster for this franchise (what season isn’t?), but with the exception of a poor start, some quarterback drama and all of that terrible offseason drama, the actual on-the-field product was, dare I say, really fun to watch?
This might be the most positive I’ve been after a season of watching this team. There feels like a very real blueprint for success, and the foundation we have going into this offseason makes me think that a few splash moves and a solid draft could actually make us a legitimate contender. Granted, I’m in a “I’ll believe it when I see it” mode, but we’re coming into this offseason with eight draft picks and the fifth most cap space in the league. On paper, we have the resources to add to this team significantly.
The first priority has to be finding a GM, which it appears we’re really starting to gain steam with. Whoever it is, I imagine it’ll be Ron Rivera’s choice, which means he’ll probably still have the majority of power in the draft room.
After that, we have to find a quarterback. This is a really interesting offseason for teams in need of a signal-caller. It’s a pretty deep draft class at the position, but no one really stands out for Washington at their No. 19 pick. Mac Jones from Alabama and Kyle Trask from Florida will likely be options at that spot, but both are fairly average pocket passers that are more likely to be quality game-managers than game-changing franchise leaders. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I think both are solid prospects, but I’m thinking Rivera will favor an option with more NFL experience over a developing rookie.
Lucky for him, there are plenty of options on that front as well. Matt Stafford should be a hot commodity as the Lions attempt to go for a complete rebuild and the same goes for Matt Ryan with the Falcons. There are also free agent options like Cam Newton and Ryan Fitzpatrick that should be fairly cheap options with veteran experience.
We also have some reclamation projects like Sam Darnold with the Jets, the duo of Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr with the Raiders, Carson Wentz of the Eagles and Mitch Trubisky of the Bears. All of these guys have shown flashes, but for some reason or another, might need a change of scenery. These have to be trade options, but should come at a relatively low cost for a few late-round draft picks.
Perhaps you’re focused more on big-game hunting. In that case, we have the option of Dak Prescott, the crown jewel of free agency that’s more likely than not returning to Dallas for a monster payday. Maybe even Jimmy Garropolo is a possibility despite being just a season removed from a Super Bowl appearance. And of course, there’s the disgruntled franchise quarterback in Deshaun Watson, a player who is clearly great, but requires a massive trade haul in order to get him. These are less likely, but still worth keeping an eye on.
Like I said, there are a plethora of options, and I’m sure Rivera has a few in mind already with the offseason starting on Sunday. Personally, I’d like for them to buy low on a guy like Mariota that allows them to have a true quarterback competition while also focusing the rest of the offseason on building as good a team as possible around whoever is under center. On the flip side, a guy like Stafford may cost a lot, but is one of the better gunslingers in the league and someone that gives them a legitimate win-now option at quarterback.
We do also have to remember that we have a few in-house players that should be re-signed. Brandon Scherff, Ronald Darby and Kevin Pierre-Louis are the big names, but also guys like Cam Sims, Fabian Moreau and Ryan Anderson are worth keeping an eye on. Of course, Ryan Kerrigan is also set to be a free agent, and while I’d love to keep the Washington legend home, it’s felt for most of the year like this would be his final run in D.C. It’d be sad, but also, he could easily find an opportunity for more playing time elsewhere.
Besides quarterback, I’d expect this team to focus on the offensive line, our linebacker group and adding a No. 2 wide receiver as our primary areas of focus. Anything else is probably a luxury signing.
I really can’t wait to start talking more about this offseason with you guys. I’ll probably do a season-in-review pretty soon just to provide as much content as I can, but also expect my draft rankings to start coming in pretty soon as well. To everyone who has followed along with me through this season, I thank you. It’s been a fun ride, and something I’ll absolutely look to do again during the 2021-22 season. I’ll be back soon with more Robservations for you all. Enjoy the rest of the NFL Playoffs!