Washington insists it’s a few plays away, but how useful of a mindset is that?

Hailey: How useful is Washington's 'few plays away' mindset? originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera has his players’ ears, which has been evident since he took over the franchise in January 2020. When Rivera talks to the media, he’ll often harp on certain themes or messages, and those on his roster are often heard repeating those things when it’s their turn to speak.

And right now, the point that Rivera is highlighting is that Washington is close to earning the results it so badly wants.

After having a chance to review how the Burgundy and Gold performed in their Week 5 loss to the Saints — a matchup that included yet another gaffe in the secondary that led to a way-too-easy opposing touchdown as well as a mortifying Hail Mary — Rivera explained to reporters on Monday that he was actually fairly encouraged by what he saw from his club.

“This is probably the first time that I can really say that this was a matter of four or five plays on both sides of the ball,” he said.

He felt that the defense was especially on point — well, except when it was very much the opposite of that.

“We played 56 plays on defense. Okay?” Rivera said. “The other 54, I’m not going to damn just because two of them weren’t where they’re supposed to be.”

On Wednesday, Kendall Fuller sat down for a press conference at Washington’s Ashburn headquarters, and when he was asked why his particular unit wasn’t performing like it did last season, he spoke in an equally optimistic manner about an operation that’s inspiring quite a bit of fervor. 

“It’s just little things,” Fuller said. “If you compared the start of the year last year versus the start of the year this year, it’s definitely different but not that far off. You’ve just got to keep on working. You put your head down, you keep on working, you keep on grinding. You show up to work every day trying to get better.”

After Fuller came Taylor Heinicke, who — yep — followed in Rivera and Fuller’s footsteps when assessing why he has hope that Washington is going to get out of its early funk.

“There’s just a handful of plays here or there that if we eliminate, we play almost a perfect game,” the quarterback said. “If you take away two or three plays on offense, two or three plays on defense, we feel like we’ve made some strides.”

So, going off of those similar-sounding quotes, it’s fairly obvious that Rivera and his staff are trying to get Washington to believe that the gap between the current situation and a more successful one is relatively small. But is that truly the case?

Well, many numbers disagree with that line of thinking.

Washington’s current point differential is minus-32, which is fourth-worst in the NFC and 25th in the NFL overall. That’s not flattering.

The defense in particular is lagging behind, of course. It has ceded the second-most points out of any team and owns the second-worst rate when it comes to limiting foes on third down. In those aspects, Washington is close… to the absolute bottom of the sport.

The team is also struggling in areas that are tied to being disciplined and detail-oriented, which are traits Rivera holds in high regard. Through five games, Washington’s turnover differential is minus-3 (tied for 29th) and its penalties-per-game average is 6.6 (tied for 19th).

With all of that in mind, should Rivera and his coaches presently be emphasizing that the squad is on the verge of a breakthrough?

Sure, it’s not like he can stand in from of them and tell them that it’s time to head to the Mountain West Conference and see how they fare at that level. He’s got to remain confident.

But perhaps he’d be better served showing a little more disappointment and anger with where Washington is in mid-October to pair with that confidence.

In one respect, it’s promising to know that his players are still so closely listening to his words. No tuning out is going on in that locker room, which is key when attempting to respond to adversity. They’re buying what he’s selling.

However, expressing to his players that they’re nearly there aside from a breakdown or two — when those breakdowns are continuing to negatively affect games on a weekly basis — might be lulling them into a comfortable mindset that’s not conducive to them digging out of an uncomfortable situation. 

“I feel like we still haven’t played our best football yet, so we’ll see, I guess,” Heinicke said Wednesday.

Yes, Taylor, that we will. And if the losses and mind-numbing errors keep stacking on top of one another, we’ll also see if Rivera sticks with the upbeat tact that he’s rolling with going into Week 6.

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner, NBC Sports Washington. Sign up for NBC Sports Washington’s free email subscription today.

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