Column: Is Washington still on the right track? History suggests yes

Ah, yes. Another lost football season in Washington. We really have gotten used to this, haven’t we?

Aside from the playoff futility since its last Super Bowl — Washington has only six playoff appearances in 29 seasons with just three victories, none of which came after 2006 — Washington hasn’t been any great shakes in the regular season either. The Burgundy and Gold have nearly five times as many double-digit-loss seasons (14) as 10-win seasons (3), and it remains the only NFL team in this millennium to fail to reach 11 wins in a season.

So you’ll excuse me if I’m not impressed by Ron Rivera’s first two seasons fighting for old D.C. or his Captain Obvious outlook for Year 3.

“This offseason’s going to be very important, very vital to what I think is part of the plan,” Rivera said Monday, a day after his team’s fourth straight loss essentially ended its season. “It’s time, I think, that that we see this team start to take that big step forward.”

Sure, we can explain away Washington’s regression from its 2020 iteration that won the NFC East as the result of a COVID outbreak and a horrible rash of injuries. But the top reason Washington can dare to be optimistic in 2022 lies out west.

As previously outlined in this space, Washington has been building this football team much like the San Francisco 49ers have since 2017. Yes, the same Niners team that in Year 3 of the Kyle Shanahan era advanced to a Super Bowl in which it held a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter before Patrick Mahomes happened (again).

Lest we forget, Shanahan’s first two seasons in San Fran yielded only 10 wins. The first year was a struggle because he was trying to build up a roster that won only two games the season before his arrival and then suffered a two-game regression in 2018 due largely to key injuries. Sound familiar?

Then in 2019, the Niners stayed injured but healthy enough to keep solid-yet-unspectacular quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo upright and rode a top 10 defense to a 13-3 campaign that was just one or two plays away from the ultimate success.

It’s not unreasonable to think Washington could do the same in 2022, assuming it gets even moderately better luck in the injury department. Chase Young will presumably be back in time for training camp and hungry to prove why he was the second overall pick in 2020. That defensive line in total was handed a yearlong helping of humble pie, so there’s no excuse for taking anything for granted entering 2022.

But Washington has to do something those Niners did not once, but twice since Shanahan took over: Swing big for a franchise quarterback.

One could make the case Garoppolo wasn’t a big swing since San Francisco gave up only a second-round pick to acquire ‘Jimmy G’ during the 2017 season, but that was certainly more aggressive than Rivera’s boldest QB acquisition to date (sending a fifth-round pick to Carolina for Kyle Allen in 2020). And there’s no debate whether the Niners’ blockbuster deal to move up to select Trey Lance third overall in 2021 was a franchise-altering move, for better or worse.

It’s time for Rivera to do the same, not just because Washington has gone at least three full decades without a franchise quarterback, but because it needs to do something to ensure the franchise’s best player doesn’t leave Ashburn.

Terry McLaurin isn’t a secret anymore. Washington’s top receiver is just 40 receiving yards away from his second straight 1,000-yard season and is clearly the face of the franchise, as evidenced by his second straight season as a team captain. As a third-round pick in 2019, his modest rookie contract expires after 2022 with no fifth-year option.

In each of his first three seasons in Washington, McLaurin has had at least three different quarterbacks throw him passes (usually with little success). Shy of showing him the money (or offering him an ownership stake), what reason would McLaurin have to keep wearing Burgundy and Gold when this current structure is literally wasting his supreme talents?

Assuming the off-field issues are resolved, Washington should call Houston every day until a deal for Deshaun Watson gets done. When last we saw him, he was historically great and at age 26, he and McLaurin — who were actually born only one day apart — could be one of the best QB-WR tandems in the NFL for at least the next half decade.

Rivera shouldn’t worry about the draft capital involved because another sub-.500 season in 2022 will all but ensure he won’t be around much longer to use those picks anyway. Plus, some of Washington’s best young playmakers — McLaurin, Antonio Gibson and Kam Curl — were drafted in the third, third and seventh rounds, respectively. Going a couple seasons without a first-round pick isn’t the end of the world if you hit on some of the mid-to-late round picks.

Furthermore, as I laid out last year, Washington has enough good, young defensive talent it can offer in a trade to offset some of the picks required to get a deal done.

“I’m optimistic. This is what I went through my first two seasons in Carolina,” Rivera said Monday. “There are some things that have mirrored them. There are some things that are new and have been very challenging. But at the end of the day, you know, with where I think the players are in terms of their growth and development, it gives me reason to be optimistic, I’m going to look at it that way.”

Sure, Ron. But your Panthers’ Year 3 leap was thanks in large part to having a franchise quarterback — and the 2015 MVP version of Cam Newton ain’t walking through the door in Ashburn unless you aggressively go get him.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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