Why Washington is closer to being a contender than you think
The Washington Football Team won the same amount of games in 2021 as they did in 2020. Off the heels of a division title and a playoff appearance that saw Washington go toe-to-toe with the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, staying even in win total can be seen as a regression.
In a way, winning the division in 2020 put unfair expectations on the 2021 version. A roster that overachieved won a bad division; therefore, accelerating the clock for the Washington Football Team. A roster that still had flaws had the weight of defending a division title on its shoulders.
In fact, I think, in this case, Washington’s seven-win season is much more impressive than in 2020 given the circumstances. And Washington honestly is not as far away as you think.
It is clear that they are not far away from being a playoff team. Washington was the No. 6 seed in the middle of December. They certainly have a fringe-playoff caliber roster. However, and this may be an unpopular opinion, Washington may not be that far from mattering in the playoffs.
And here’s why.
Contextualizing the 2021 season for Washington
One thing should be made clear: a seven-win season in 2021 for Washington is much more impressive than a seven-win season in 2020 for Washington. For starters, lets start with the obvious; Washington was playing a first-place schedule in 2021. A schedule, according to ESPN, that was the toughest in the NFL.
In 2020, they were playing a last-place schedule. While the 2021 schedule featured quarterbacks with the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, Derek Carr, Justin Herbert, and Josh Allen, 2020 featured Andy Dalton, Nick Mullens, Ben DeNucci, and other various backup level quarterback options.
In the second quarter of the 2021 season, Ryan Fitzpatrick broke his hip, and then the starting quarterback for Washington was lost for the season in an instant.
They were forced to play the backup quarterback, Taylor Heinicke, for essentially the entire season. Heinicke has essentially been the starter for Washington this season so it is easy to forget but he was never Plan A. Ryan Fitzpatrick was. Pick your bones with that being Plan A all you like but nevertheless Plan A was gone in a flash.
Unlike in 2020, where Washington remained relatively healthy, Washington was ravaged by injuries. For starters Curtis Samuel, the team’s prized free-agent signing, barely saw the field due to injury. William Jackson III had nagging injuries throughout the year and the aforementioned Fitzpatrick hip injury had Washington’s three main free-agent acquisitions were sidelined with injuries.
That is not to mention that Washington played nearly half the year without Montez Sweat and Chase Young or that they were down to their fourth-string center and third-string guard. And of course, there is the major COVID outbreak that caused the back-nine collapse for the Washington Football Team.
If you need numerical evidence, according to PFF, the Washington Football Team lost the second-most WAR (Wins above Replacement) to injury behind only the Baltimore Ravens.
Washington had all of these troubles (I probably forgot some too) and they still managed to win seven games with a backup quarterback to stabilize the mess. Up until Jan. 2, they were not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.
Sure, there are examples of teams like the Titans who dealt with similar troubles and obtained the AFC’s No. 1 seed. Point taken. But in their case, their stabilizing force at quarterback was Ryan Tannehill. Washington’s was Taylor Heinicke. All due respect to No. 4, but Tannehill is just a lot better than him.
And of course, these are not meant as excuses. Every team has attrition and problems in the NFL. And there are legitimate concerns like the play of Washington’s defense early on, where they looked completely inept and underperformed. That definitely needs to be solved, Washington’s defense has far too much talent to underperform the way they did in 2021.