- The Washington Times
Monday, January 4, 2021

PHILADELPHIA — Chase Young roamed the empty Lincoln Financial Field, wearing a t-shirt that proclaimed his team NFC East champions. In his hand, he held his phone, FaceTiming with his mother.

As Young got to the midfield logo, the Washington rookie pass-rusher crouched and bobbed his head slowly for a few seconds.

“I just had to take it in, man,” Young said.

Young soaked in the magnitude of a 20-14 victory on “Sunday Night Football” over the Philadelphia Eagles that clinched a trip to the postseason for Washington.

The game wasn’t glamorous. At times, it was downright ugly.

But that, after all, was perfectly appropriate for Washington’s mixed-up, messy, unpredictable season.

For Washington, the first year under Coach Ron Rivera has been about learning how to take a punch and keep on standing.

Rivera has often asked those outside the club to judge his players and coaches on the direction the team is headed, not on where they’ve been.

That request seemed unrealistic at times, given all that Washington went through in 2020 — from the name change to allegations of sexual misconduct at team headquarters to cutting a player drafted to be the “future of the franchise.”

But on Sunday, the direction Rivera’s team was heading was clear: Up and into the NFL playoffs, where the 7-9 NFC East champs will host an 8:15 p.m. Saturday matchup at FedEx Field with Tom Brady and the wild-card Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Washington Football Team has discovered a lot about itself this season. But the major takeaway might be that this squad has a promising nucleus, led by Young, that is on the verge of competing with the NFL’s best.

“We got a feel for who they are, how tough and resilient they can be,” Rivera said, “Now, we’ll see how they handle it. That’s the next thing.”

To be clear, Sunday’s sloppy win showed Washington has a ways to go before it can call itself an elite squad. Rivera called the game was a “grind to the end.”

Despite jumping out to a 10-0 lead, Washington was unable to play consistent football all evening. Quarterback Alex Smith, for instance, struggled in his return from a calf injury with only 162 yards and two interceptions to go with his two touchdowns.

Philadelphia, too, bailed out Washington by benching standout rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts for backup Nate Sudfeld in the fourth quarter during a three-point game. Sudfeld, a former Washington third-stringer, committed two turnovers and completed less than 50% of his passes. Eagles coach Doug Pederson said the switch was planned to let Philadelphia further evaluate Sudfeld, but it looked like a move to help Philadelphia (4-11-1) shore up better draft positioning.

Still, there were plenty of moments in which Washington’s resolve was tested — and the team met the challenge once again. Fall behind 14-10? There’s Smith leading a crucial two-minute drive with a perfectly placed go-ahead touchdown to Logan Thomas for 13 yards just before halftime. Smith throws a disastrous interception to give Philadelphia great field position? The defense bails out the offense with a turnover on downs.

Wide receiver Terry McLaurin remembers the feeling of a 3-13 locker room last season, how different the atmosphere felt compared to consistently winning games from college at Ohio State. But McLaurin said Washington adopted a different mindset under Rivera, beginning with the coach setting the right tone at practice. Rivera, battling cancer, was the “perfect example” for how tough Washington could be, McLaurin said.

“It’s just about continuously working, swinging at that rock until it breaks,” said McLaurin, who caught a touchdown while battling a high-ankle sprain. “It feels great a year later seeing how far we’ve come with pretty much the same nucleus of guys, with some great additions in the offseason.”

Right tackle Morgan Moses also highlighted the changes under the new coaching staff. Moses, one of the few holdovers from Washington’s last playoff run in 2015, said he’s seen how Rivera and Co. have unlocked the team’s potential.

“The positivity of the coaching staff has just been the difference, man,” Moses said. “I feel like we’ve always had the talent here. We’ve always had talented players here. It’s just about bringing us together as one unit and not getting down on us when one unit is not playing as well.”

Washington may have had talent, but the team arguably was missing the edge that star players can provide. Young and McLaurin are foundational pieces — and perhaps their greatest attribute is their work ethic and leadership. Washington’s other players feed off that energy and fittingly, McLaurin and Young are captains.

Smith, too, has provided a steady example, on and off the field, of what it means to be a professional. Despite the uneven play on Sunday, Smith remains a big reason for Washington’s turnaround from a 1-5 start to a 7-9 finish.

“To be here now says a lot about the character we have in the locker room,” Smith said.

The veteran quarterback, like the rookie Young, was sporting a t-shirt commemorating the just-won NFC East title. Emblazoned across the shirt was a rallying cry for a team savoring a new appetite for winning: “Won, Not Done.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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