Opinion: Behind Alex Smith, Ron Rivera, the Washington Football Team achieves the incomprehensible

Pulling off what once seemed  incomprehensible given the adversity and turmoil that plagued the organization throughout the year, the Washington Football Team clinched the NFC East title by defeating the Philadelphia Eagles 20-14 Sunday night.

In so doing, 7-9 Washington punched its playoff ticket, returning to the postseason for the first time since 2015. Washington also became only the fifth team in NFL history to win a division with a losing record. 

On Saturday, Washington hosts Tampa Bay, and its players and coaches will see if they can extend good fortunes further despite being early 7-point home underdogs.

Sunday night, in a performance befitting of the NFC East’s 2020 season, Washington did not at all win pretty against the host Eagles. There were ups and downs, maddening miscues, and some elements of the night proved down right confounding.

Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera (Photo: Bill Streicher, USA TODAY Sports)

Washington mustered only three second-half points. And quarterback Alex Smith, who recorded two first-half touchdowns, threw a third- and fourth-quarter interceptions, putting additional pressure on a defense that has carried the team all season.

But even more perplexing was Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson’s decision to seemingly wave the white flag at the start of the fourth quarter and bench promising rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts in favor of third-stringer Nate Sudfeld despite trailing by only three points. The move angered veteran members of the team and frustrated members of the New York Giants, who needed a Philadelphia victory to secure the division title instead of Washington.

But despite the oddities and season as a whole, the night still belonged to Washington. The players brought to fruition the vision their first-year head coach held for them even when they opened the year 1-4.

So, it was fitting Washington couldn’t run away with the victory despite facing an Eagles squad that entered the game with a 4-10-1. Nothing about Washington’s season has come easy. But victory did come.

“It’s just a testament to the guys in the room and the character that Rivera is building here,” second-year pro Montez Sweat said. “It’s the culture. It’s a winning culture, it’s a hungry culture and everybody’s holding each other accountable. That’s got us heading in the right direction. … It’s all the guys buying in. Everybody’s playing for the guy next to them.”

As was the case throughout their turnaround, the team on Sunday leaned heavily on the three key figures: Rivera, Smith and rookie pass-rusher Chase Young, who have served as the catalysts for change and beacons of hope amidst the longest of odds and bleakest of circumstances.

If any team in the league this season received a full-on dose of adversity, it was Washington.

— The COVID-19-induced challenges of a new coaching staff trying to install its system without offseason practices or even face-to-face meetings with players until late July.

— Off-field controversies – the forced abandonment of the long-time nickname, allegations of rampant organizational sexual harassment and misconduct, and bitter legal battles between owner Daniel Snyder and his partners –  have hung over the squad much of the offseason and regular season.

— A cancer diagnosis for Rivera, and seven in-season weeks of chemo treatments, which forced him to miss meetings and practices.

— The early-season benching of anticipated franchise quarterback Dwayne Haskins after a 1-3 start to the season.

— The season-ending injury to his replacement, Kyle Allen, who followed Rivera to Washington from Carolina and was supposed to give the team a boost thanks to his familiarity with the offense.

— A momentum-killing calf strain to Smith after four straight victories.

— A second failed Haskins stint marred by poor play and off-field judgement and his subsequent release last week. 

So, the pressure of Sunday night’s win-or-go home game against Philadelphia actually brought a welcomed element of simplicity. 

For once, only football mattered.

Throughout this season of calamity, Rivera and Smith served as testimonies of inspiration for a young locker room; Rivera with his bout with cancer, and Smith with his comeback from the gruesome 2018 injury that threatened his football career, his leg and his life and required 17 surgeries to correct.

The coach and quarterback also helped stabilize this unproven roster and helped its players navigate a challenging season, block out the drama and overcome deficiencies in the areas of experience and talent. 

Washington QB Alex Smith (Photo: Derik Hamilton, AP)

Rivera regularly used the acronym APE to get his message across, reminding his players that attitude, preparation and effort were the only things in their control individually and collectively. 

He also stressed it’s not how you start, but how you finish. He repeatedly pointed to his 2014 Panthers team that rebounded from a 3-7-1 start to win the NFC South with a 7-8-1 record and reach the playoffs.

Washington’s players began to buy in and in their words, “learn how to win.”

Smith, meanwhile, sparked a struggling offense with his experience, consistency and poise. In Smith, Washington had a quarterback strong on ball security and an ability to position teammates for success. Washington’s offense certainly still had its issues, however, Smith’s impact elevated the unit to a level of competitiveness.

Meanwhile, a young, talent-rich defensive front solidified in the second half of the season with first-round pick Chase Young leading the way. 

Young, the second overall pick out of Ohio State, showed signs in the season opener (also against Philly) of the impact he could have as a one-man wrecking crew and as someone who could command double-teams and free up teammates to make plays. 

Young hit a rough patch midway through the season while dealing with a hip injury, but after regaining his health, he roared to life. In the final six weeks of play, Young recorded three sacks, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and a touchdown. And his teammates fed off of his energy. He also commanded such respect that he was added to the team’s roster of co-captains in the final weeks of the season.

Sunday night against the Eagles, Washington’s three new pillars again delivered. 

Despite the second-half struggles, Washington continued to reflect the resolve of its coach rather than fold as the franchise’s fans have witnessed in previous years.

Smith wasn’t spectacular, but he again paced an offense that made just enough key plays to get the job done while benefiting from the backing of a strong defense anchored by Young and his two tackles, sack and a fumble recovery.

So, despite the ugly patches of the game, and Pederson’s perplexing decision, Washington’s players worried not about style points but pushed through and prevailed.

“It speaks way more to the team, the character we have,” Smith said. “Everything that was stacked against, going through the offseason, new coaching staff, all the changes, all the COVID stuff, and for us to get off to a slow start like we did and find a way to battle back and then finish it off like this, it says a lot about the character we have in the locker room. Good or bad, those guys come to work and we put in the effort.”

Coming off the field, Young jubilantly yelled that he and his teammates are ready for Tom Brady, whom they’ll host with his Bucs on Saturday. But after the locker room celebration, a more subdued and reflective Young went back onto the field to take in the lingering atmosphere while FaceTiming his mother.

“I just had to take it in, being a rookie,” he said. “I’ll never get that back. I can never re-run that. So, I had to go back out there and take it all in. … It’s just a brotherhood, just a love for one another. I remember when we were 1-4. But we’re not done though. We’re not done. … We’re still on go.”

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