In the hours after Saturday’s season-ending Washington loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, sometime on Sunday or Monday, coach Ron Rivera planned to meet with owner Dan Snyder to discuss what’s next for the Washington Football Team — including addressing the quarterback situation and the organization’s opening for a general manager.
Winning the NFC East and making the playoffs in Year 1 was more than Rivera envisioned when he took the job. From the beginning, he’d stressed patience, telling fans and critics to give the team’s young core a chance to grow. He couldn’t imagine then that 7-9 would be enough to make the postseason, nor the mountain of obstacles Washington would face.
Along the way, he tried to build a culture of accountability and professionalism. Now, he said, it’s time to sustain it.
“If we come back and we’re fat and lazy, we’re going to get the crap kicked out of us,” Rivera said. “It’s that simple.”
This coming offseason is critical. With a projected $42 million in cap room, Washington has the money to be major spenders in free agency — and the additions could end up making the difference.
That’s why finding a long-term answer at quarterback will be a priority for Washington, whether through the draft, free agency or a trade. Washington cycled through four quarterbacks this past season, most recently Taylor Heinicke — whose gusty 306-yard performance in the wild card impressed the NFL community.
Heinicke will be a restricted free agent, and Rivera expressed interest in retaining the 27-year-old. Former starter Kyle Allen, on injured reserve with a broken ankle, is also a restricted free agent and will need a new contract if Washington wants him back. Veteran Alex Smith, meanwhile, has two left years left on his deal, though his future is very much up in the air as the 36-year-old mulls retirement.
Players left Saturday’s loss to the Buccaneers with plenty of optimism about the future. Right tackle Morgan Moses, a seven-year veteran, felt real hope for the first time in years. Cornerback Kendall Fuller compared Washington’s situation to his former team with the Kansas City Chiefs, noting the latter lost in the AFC championship and won the Super Bowl the next year.
The excitement carried over to Sunday morning as players cleaned out their lockers and met with reporters for one last time before the offseason. All-Pro guard Brandon Scherff, a pending free agent, said he wants to re-sign with Washington, in part, because the team is “building something here to make a run in the future.” Safety Jeremy Reaves said he would “run through a brick wall’ for Rivera after playing for him.
“I think greatness is what we could be, man,” running back J.D. McKissic said.
Washington, of course, was still a below-.500 team in 2020. And the team will have a much harder schedule next season as it will play more first-place teams as the result of winning the division.
Recent Washington playoff teams haven’t been able to sustain success. Mike Shanahan and Jay Gruden made one trip apiece, 2012 and 2015 respectively, to the postseason as the head coach in Washington. Both squads flamed out the following year. Shanahan was fired in 2013 off a 3-13 campaign, while Washington in 2016 blew an opportunity to make the playoffs with a Week 17 loss against New York.
But Rivera has a young, promising nucleus that should be even better next year. Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Terry McLaurin and Antonio Gibson — foundational pieces on defense and offense — are under contract for the foreseeable future.
“We’ve got a pretty good foundation,” Rivera said. “That’s what’s exciting about it. To me, it’s having all the rest of the pieces as well. … The quarterback is probably one of the most important things that we have to get done and get established.”
Rivera, too, said he hopes for a return to normalcy for Washington. Beyond the pandemic, Rivera was often pulled in different directions as he had to deal with social justice issues, the team’s name change, the NFL’s investigation into the team’s alleged workplace misconduct, his own cancer battle and a litany of other issues.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that football can become the sole focus. In the coming months, the NFL will likely hand down the findings into the sexual harassment allegations made by former employees. The team is also still in the search for a new name. At the end of the month, Rivera is set for a full-body scan that will give a better picture of his fight against cancer.
But those are things largely out of Rivera’s control. For his part, Rivera kept his players on track as they bounced back from a poor start to make the playoffs. He told reporters that he was proud of how the team responded and seemed to grasp what is required of them.
After Rivera meets Snyder, he’ll then shift his focus to breaking down the roster in an internal evaluation. He’ll study strengths and weaknesses as he examines what’s necessary for Washington to become a consistent playoff contender.
Rivera will try to replicate the success he had in Carolina. After making the playoffs in 2013, the Panthers followed it up with back-to-back postseason trips — including a Super Bowl appearance to cap the 2015 season.
“The most important thing is going to be, what have we learned from our history?” Rivera said.
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