The previous two times the Washington Football Team started a season as reigning NFC East champions, there was a sense of optimism that the franchise was finally heading in the right direction.
After winning the division in 2012, the team thought it had the quarterback of the future in Robert Griffin III and the right coach in Mike Shanahan.
We all know how that ended.
Then in 2015, the team won four straight to end the season with Kirk Cousins at the helm. The biggest question mark that year was, “Will Kirk sign a long term contract?”
We all know how that ended as well.
This year seems different. I know — we’ve said that in the past — but now there’s someone in charge that everyone trusts and that has overhauled the organization in the 21 months since taking over.
It’s clear that head coach Ron Rivera is running this organization. There are only 16 players that remain from the 2019 squad that saw Jay Gruden get fired after an 0-5 start and the team finish 3-13.
What’s unclear is how the Washington Football Team will perform in a year in which they’re the defending NFC East champions. Rivera mentioned several times this summer he’s concerned about his team’s maturity level and that will be one of the keys to a successful season.
He also knows that being consistent on a week-to-week basis will go a long way in determining how far his team can go.
On offense, there is a new quarterback: Ryan Fitzpatrick joins his ninth team in 17 NFL seasons and should be an upgrade over last year’s quarterback situation.
With Fitz, you know what you’re going to get — he will sling it all over the field and will probably have games where he throws multiple interceptions. The hope is that when he does that, it won’t be too much to overcome.
He has plenty of weapons at his disposal, beginning with second-year running backs Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic. At wideout, Terry McLaurin enters his third season and is on his way to becoming one of the best in the league.
Adam Humphries, Curtis Samuel and Logan Thomas are three that should help Fitz as well, although Samuel hasn’t done much all summer as he dealt with a groin injury and being on the COVID list. Rookie Dyami Brown should contribute immediately as well.
The offensive line is still the biggest question mark after going through training camp and the preseason. If that unit can open holes and keep Fitz upright, then the offense could be fun to watch.
On the other side of the ball, the defense is again expected to be the strongest unit on the team, led by reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young. The defensive line could (and should) be the best in the league, highlighted by Young and Montez Sweat rushing off the edges.
The changes to the defense will be visible in the linebacking position as well as the secondary, which has basically been overhauled.
Rivera drafted linebacker Jamin Davis, who he compares to Luke Kuechly — high praise considering Keuchly was a five-time All-Pro and a Pro Bowl selection in all but one of his eight NFL seasons in Carolina. Jon Bostic and Cole Holcomb return to provide veteran leadership.
The return of safety Landon Collins from a torn Achilles and the addition of free agent corners William Jackson III and Torry McTyer should give defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio the option to do a number of things defensively.
Del Rio will also count on a pair of rookies to contribute immediately: the first-rounder Davis and third-round corner Benjamin St-Juste. Davis has shown signs during the preseason that he is ready for the bright lights.
There will be plenty of obstacles for the Burgundy and Gold to overcome this year, beginning with playing a first-place schedule and a murderer’s row of quarterbacks. Washington’s defense will be tested by Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Dak Prescott (twice).
As far as the schedule goes, two games in the first five days of the season is crucial with a chance to get off to a 2-0 start. On the back side, the last five weeks of the season will be crucial, as Washington will play five straight NFC East games to close out the season.
Washington has a chance to be pretty good during this 17-week marathon, but there is still plenty unknown. Sunday will be our first chance to get some answers.