clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The 5 O’Clock Club: Confessions of a confused WFT fan

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

Baltimore Ravens and the Washington Football Team

The 5 o’clock club is published several times per week during the season, and aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.

I’m struggling with my thoughts and feelings these days. At first, I thought I had something akin to ‘writer’s block’, but I’m starting to realize that the struggle I’m facing isn’t the inability to express what I want to say; it’s not really having anything clear to say.

Since Sunday’s debacle against the Rams (and even before, truth be told), I’ve been turning ideas over in my mind about what to write here on Hogs Haven. There’s certainly no shortage of stories surrounding the Washington Football Team at the moment! In many ways, I’m spoiled for choice.

But I’ve discarded ideas as fast as I’ve come up with them — usually because I just couldn’t wrap my hands around the central message or theme of the potential article. See, that’s part of writing an article. At its heart, each article has to be about something. It has to have a message, or, at the very least, a clear theme. For years, I’ve found it easy to produce multiple articles weekly — often actually having to leave articles unwritten because there just wasn’t enough time to execute every article idea that I had. For me, generating ideas has never been a problem. Until the past month or so.

Lately, my well of creativity seems to have run dry.

It’s as if my quill is broken. As if the organ of the imagination has dried up. As if the proud tower of my thoughts has collapsed. Nothing comes. It is like trying to a pick a lock with a wet herring.

But I think I’m starting to understand what underlies my recent evaporation of ideas. I’ve lost my clear picture of the team, its coaches, its players and the organization as a whole. I don’t know what to write because I don’t know what I think.

I’ve never been shy about standing by my own opinions, even when they’re unpopular. As a prime example, I liked the trade for Alex Smith when it happened. I thought the contract he received was pretty reasonable when I saw it, and I think that he played the kind of football that allowed the team to win 6 of its first 9 games — that is, those games were won because of how Alex played, not in spite of how he played. Yes, the contract blew up with is leg injury, but the risk taken by the franchise was not out of line with the risk taken by any NFL team signing a veteran starting QB to a contract extension. Subsequent events have not changed my mind.

I’m also not embarrassed about changing my mind in the face of evidence when I’m convinced I was wrong. I thought the burgundy & gold was poised for an 8 or 9-win season last year. I saw the second-half collapse against the Eagles to open the ‘19 season as the anomaly; not the norm. What I saw in Week 2 last year, however, changed my mind completely. I had completely misunderstood the team and the situation it was in. By the time the final whistle blew in Week 2 of the 2019 season, I was saying that I’d been wrong. The team was horrible.

So, like most people, I enjoy having opinions that are vindicated by results or popular with others, but I don’t feel the need to be in the majority to feel that I’m right, nor do I feel compelled to defend an opinion to the bitter end because I once stated it. I’m content to admit I was wrong if that’s what I think.

But I’m realizing lately that I’m in a state of confusion about the Washington Football Team, its players and coaches. I’m finding it hard to write what I think because I don’t know what I think.

I lack any true conviction about the team, beyond my conviction that they are one of the worst in the NFL in 2020.

Let me focus for a minute on the the two highest-profile actors in the team’s most recent dramas — Head Coach Ron Rivera and second-year player Dwayne Haskins. In each case, I started out feeling one way, got pushed in the other direction by subsequent events, and now find myself just feeling confused.

First, let me discuss Riverboat Ron.

Back in November and December of 2019, when the franchise was actively looking at head coaching candidates, I did research on a number of candidates, and wrote profiles of 6 candidates: Greg Roman, Ron Rivera, Eric Bieniemy, Matt Rhule, Dave Toub, and Rober Saleh. Based on what I learned, the guy I wanted to see hired for the Washington head coaching job was Matt Rhule, who ended up becoming Rivera’s replacement in Carolina.

But I came away with a very good feeling about Rivera. In fact, here’s what I wrote in the profile I wrote about him:

Rivera appears to be a well-rounded coach and an all-around good guy. He isn’t a failed “retread”, but a successful coach who seems to have gotten caught up in a lot of organizational change in Carolina. This is a guy who was standing on the sidelines of the super bowl, calling the shots just 4 years ago. Ron Rivera may be the most proven, high quality candidate available to teams looking for a head coach this year.

While he is known as a players’ coach, he also has a reputation for old school discipline during the week, and being a risk-taker who makes gamedays exciting every week.

Rivera has successfully built a team around a young quarterback before, and seems to be able to pull people together in the locker room.

If the Redskins want to hire a proven winner with head coaching experience, I’m not sure that they can do any better than Riverboat Ron.

I think it’s fair to say that I had Rivera ranked second behind Rhule on my “want to hire” list, and was not disappointed when he was announced as the new head coach in the first week of January. I probably became more enthusiastic when voices around the league were raised in support of Ron as the best possible guy for Snyder to recruit.

It was a wild off-season, so trying to recreate my feelings and impressions of Rivera as we went through the multitude of stories and crises unique to the franchise in addition to the broader issues like the pandemic would be far to lengthy, tedious (and probably flawed, as my memory is often not precise, at least, if my girlfriend is to be believed).

Let me hit a few highlights, however.

Ron’s early messaging was that he wouldn’t make any long-term commitments to players without meeting them and getting to know them first. It struck me as an odd idea — after all, the NFL is all about talent evaluation, and Ron had an entire organization at his disposal with first-hand knowledge of Washington’s roster — but I was willing to defer. That is, I followed his logic right up until the point that he reportedly offered a 5-year, $100m+ contract to Amari Cooper in an ultimately failed attempt to attract him to the Washington roster. It didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t make sense now, that no long term commitments could be made...except to Amari Cooper. I wrote two or three times about this inconsistent messaging and got huge pushback from readers who were almost unanimous in telling me that I was wrong or misguided or stupid. I still think that I was seeing a real issue with Ron that was cropping up early.

A subset of his this unwillingness to make commitments to anyone on the roster was the way he handled two of the roster’s most talented players — Trent Williams and Quinton Dunbar. Again, there’s no broad agreement about how those two should have been handled, but personally I was put off by Rivera’s reported lack of engagement with Williams, in particular. Instead of coming into Washington and demonstrating a clear contrast to Bruce Allen by engaging Williams one-on-one in a meaningful dialogue, Rivera reportedly had a single phone conversation with him before seeking to trade the talented left tackle. Further, instead of engaging in a discussion with Dunbar about his past contributions to the team and a possible contract extension, the player seems to have been told to put his personal concerns on hold until Rivera himself got comfortable in DC.

I didn’t like any of this messaging at the time, and found it confusing.

In fact, Ron’s entire approach to free agency seemed inconsistent with his open pursuit of Amari Cooper. With a universe of capable veterans looking for homes, aside from the effort to sign Cooper and the contract given to Fuller to bring him back home, the free agency period was spent signing low end free agents and journeymen to low-cost, short term contracts. I can’t remember anything splashier than the 2-year, $6.1m contract for TE Logan Thomas or the 3-year, $13.4m deal for RG Wes Schweitzer. Ron Rivera was telling the fan base clearly that 2020 was not about building a winning roster and trying to win football games, it was about consolidation, evaluation, clearing the decks, accumulating cap dollars and instilling culture and new schemes. It was Year 1 of the newest re-building project.

That wasn’t a message I wanted to hear, but it was, at least, a message that I understood. After so long, I’m impatient to see winning football, but I can understand the need for Ron to make a complete break from the Bruce Allen era, and it’s not so unreasonable for him to need a season to change the direction of a franchise that had developed so much negative inertia.

I’ve been puzzled by some of the roster moves — choosing to release Sean Davis in favor of Troy Apke and cutting Adrian Peterson are two moves that leap to mind — but then, I don’t really think that my untutored player evaluations are any substitute for the head coach’s judgement. Still, I found myself scratching my head a bit.

As the regular season began, I thought I had a clear understanding of where we were. Weekly, Ron talked about his “young” team (coach speak for an roster full of holes), and the focus on just playing hard and getting better (coach speak for expecting to lose a lot of games).

Having opened up in January/February by publicly “challenging” his young quarterback to develop, Ron had changed his tune during training camp, backing Haskins and his offseason efforts and seemingly committing to him entirely.

Dwayne Haskins

Let me be clear; I didn’t want Washington to draft Haskins. I wanted the team to work on building the roster and going through the 2019 season with a competent veteran quarterback. There were certainly a lot of experienced quarterbacks looking for work in the 2019 off-season.

But I’m not one to look back at ‘what could have been’. Once the decision was made to draft Haskins, he was our quarterback, and I was ready to support him. The problem I faced was that my lizard-brain reaction to Haskins was all negative. I observed him on draft day and didn’t like what I saw on camera. I watched his press conferences and didn’t like what I saw — his demeanor, his way of answering questions, his facial expressions and body language — everything rubbed me the wrong way. It was analogous to getting a penalty and starting the first drive of the game at 1st & 20 — it was gonna be a long hard journey for me to embrace our new franchise quarterback.

What I saw from Haskins on the sidelines reinforced my negative impressions. He seemed disinterested and perhaps insolent in his manner. When he finally played, he played poorly and then seemed aggressive and unpleasant when he had to face the media afterwards. I was deeply bothered by the “selfie” incident when he missed the last play of the game, then snapped at reporters that “the game was over” when he was celebrating with fans.

I’d say that I was struggling to find much positive about Dwayne Haskins as we entered December of the 2019 season. But then he played the final six quarters of football of his rookie year before it ended with injury. He looked like a completely different player on the field. He played well and led some drives. He showed promise of becoming a real NFL quarterback.

Those six quarters were enough for me to put away my negative feelings about Haskins and buy into him as the future of the franchise. His early issues were not character flaws but the result of the toxic environment and a head coach who had no interest in him. He has struggled in games but all he needed was experience. He was a winner in high school and college who would learn to be a winner in the pros.

When he physically re-shaped his body in the off-season, that had an impact on what I thought of him. Perhaps he had more maturity and work ethic than I’d given him credit for. When Ron Rivera praised him for putting in the work to learn the offense, I was ready to embrace Dwayne fully.

The kid had been misunderstood by me. He’d been drafted by an organization into an untenable situation with a coaching staff that didn’t want him or believe in him, but now that he had the support of a new staff he could blosson.

While there was a lot about Rivera’s messaging and decision-making that had puzzled me from January to August, I understood where we were as the regular season started in September. Ron wanted everyone, but Haksins in particular, to play hard, embace the new schemes and culture, learn and grow. Rivera would “take his lumps” (his words) with Haskins as the Football Team struggled through sixteen ugly games because it would all be part of the building process for 2021 and beyond. We were all in this together for the long haul.

The team looked bad weekly. Even in the opening week win against the Eagles, it was more a matter of Philly collapsing under the weight of the Football Team’s pass rush than any great positive contribution from the offense. The team looked like it didn’t belong on the field with the Cardinals.

Overall, the offense and defense played better against the Browns — well enough to win, it seemed. Except for Haskins, who had the worst game of his career. For the first time since before training camp, I heard a crack in Rivera’s resolve to support Haskins fully. I figured it was more public relations and challenging the young QB to work harder; I didn’t think it pointed to any immediate danger of Haskins losing his role as a starter.

The WFT was never really in position to win the game against the Ravens, but the difference in rosters would have demanded a perfect game from the Washington offense, defense and special teams to get a win. It wasn’t perfect, and the WFT lost, but, unlike a week earlier against Cleveland, Haskins didn’t appear to shoulder the majority of the blame for the loss. If anything, I would have said he was back on track in his development, and with some winnable games coming up on the schedule, he was poised to take significant steps over the next 4 to 6 weeks. If he could lead the team and win some games, maybe he could develop into the guy he was drafted to be; if not, then the franchise would have some hard decisions ahead.

So, I have to say that I was gobsmacked by Rivera’s decision to bench Haskins in favor of Kyle Allen, and — as I had been back in March — I was bedeviled in my attempt to reconcile what seemed to be inconsistency in Ron’s reasoning.

The coach had been preaching patience, culture, hard work, and improvement from the beginning. At pretty much every opportunity after his opening press conference, he has tried to limit expectations regarding wins this season, always focusing on culture over the win-loss record. His messaging about Dwayne had been, until the Browns post-game press conference, resoundingly supportive, repeating the messages of patience and progress.

Even after the Browns game, I assumed that Dwayne had until about Week 11 to play without fear of being replaced, and if asked to place a monetary bet, would have put my money on Rivera sticking with Haskins through all 16 games.

For Ron to suddenly reverse course and announce that winning the division had just replaced establishing culture as the number one priority was simply mind-boggling. In March, he’d pursued Amari Cooper despite saying that he wouldn’t make any long-term commitments to anyone until he’d seen them on the football field himself. Last week, after months of preaching culture over wins, he suddenly benched the team’s 2019 first round pick whom Rivera had been supporting unwaveringly since the start of training camp in favor of Kyle Allen, a third-year UDFA signal caller who had been inconsistent in less than a full season of starts last year in Carolina.

While I started out very negative about Haskins in April 2019 and very positive about Ron Rivera in January this year, I found myself a week ago wondering what the hell the head coach was thinking in deciding to bench Haskins after just four games. His messaging just doesn’t make any sense.

In March and April, if he’d said that he was getting rid of Williams and Dunbar because his discussions with Kyle Smith and others indicated that it was the best roster move available, then I’d’ve understood. Instead, it was painted by Rivera as players unwilling to come to camp and prove themselves. But why would they have to if Amari Cooper, the former Raider and Cowboy didn’t have to do that to get a high-dollar, long-term commitment?

Last week, if Rivera had said that Dwayne Haskins no longer represented the future of the franchise or that he had to learn valuable lessons by watching from the sidelines for a while, I might’ve understood. But Coach said that, because other teams in the division appeared to suck as much as Washington, he “would be stupid” not to try to win the division by benching Haskins and starting Kyle Allen.

I mean, he put in hints of the kind of reasoning that made sense. He mentioned that Dwayne hadn’t continued to consistently show progress, and that he (Rivera) owed it to the other 52 guys on the team to give them the best chance to win. If he’d gone all the way with that, saying that Dwayne’s work ethic had fallen below the acceptable standard, that other players weren’t following him, and that he was putting Dwayne on the shelf for the indefinite future because he simply wasn’t doing the things necessary to hold on to the starting job, then I’d’ve perhaps understood. But Rivera did almost the opposite, saying that this wasn’t “an indictment” of Haskins, but a dramatic shift in focus on the part of Rivera from the long-term goal of instilling culture to the short term goal of trying to win the replacing his franchise QB with a UDFA with a similar number of starts who had, in Rivera’s words, had “limited success” in the past.

I can only guess that Rivera was ham-handedly trying to maintain some trade value for Haskins by awkwardly trying to talk up Haskins’ arm and his future as an NFL quarterback while explaining the decision to put him on ice just as the Football Team entered the meat of its division schedule, believing that Kyle Allen was the better option.

So, here I sit, having watched Kyle Allen get knocked out of the game by a wicked blow to the head in the second quarter, only to see Alex Smith — Alex Smith, whom a year ago I would have bet $1,000 would never see another NFL snap — come off the bench to play in a driving rain storm in relief of Kyle Allen while Dwayne Haskins was watching the game at home, apparently sick with fever and stomach problems.

I can’t quite figure out how we got here from where we were at the start of training camp, at the end of training camp, following the victory over the Eagles or the loss against the Ravens. At every point, the trajectory of the season with regards to Dwayne Haskins and Ron Rivera felt like Dwayne would be given every chance to prove that he was or wasn’t the guy.

Apparently, it took Ron just 4 weeks to figure out he wasn’t.

It appears that Ron’s commitment to take his lumps with Dwayne had a life of two weeks.

Once again, the Washington franchise seems to be engaging in a textbook approach to “how to invest heavily in a player and then destroy his trade value”. Ron might’ve been able to get draft capital back for Dwayne in March, April or May. At the moment, Haskins is probably worth a conditional 5th rounder, if that. He’s gone from quarterback of the future in Week 15 of last season to damaged goods in Week 5 of this season.

Honestly, it felt like a throwback to the kinds of inane things that Bruce Allen would do and say in an attempt to achieve the unachievable and explain the inexplicable. Having waited too long to act, Bruce would make bad situations worse.

Ron, at least, said that he wanted to see what he had before making decisions. I’m not really questioning whether Ron was right to bench Dwayne. The anonymous reports about Haskins’ lack of work ethic, his bragging about stats after the loss to the Ravens, and the front office’s hopes of trading him away to another team — organizational leaks that, again, are reminiscent of the Bruce Allen era practice of smearing a guy as soon as the franchise didn’t want him anymore — all point to Rivera making the right decision. But Rivera’s messaging doesn’t make sense. It didn’t make sense in March and it isn’t making sense in October.

I find myself a confused Wasthington Football Team fan. I find myself feeling a bit badly for Dwayne Haskins — a guy who strikes me as immature and even unlikeable — while questioning Ron Rivera — a guy who strikes me as principled and dedicated — as events unfold in a way that seems to be, not a break from the dysfunction of the past two decades, but just more of the same.

My problem is that I don’t really have a point of view that I am deeply committed to here. I don’t really want to defend Dwayne Haskins. I suspect that the anonymous reports about his lack of maturity, hard work and leadership are more than likely correct; they do, after all, reinforce my previous impressions of him, and Rivera appears to be the third NFL head coach (Gruden & Callahan before him) to have not had faith in Dwayne. I also don’t really want to attack Rivera’s decision to bench him. Like the decisions to move cut Adrian Peterson and Sean Davis, I have to assume Rivera knows more than I do and is in position to make the right decision. But Coach Rivera’s messaging, for at least the second time in his short tenure here, seems highly inconsistent with his actions and what he’s saying publicly doesn’t make any sense to me.

The team seems to have, again, invested draft capital in quarterback, very possibly chosen badly, failed to develop him properly, and then destroyed his value to the team and his value in trade by mishandling him at every opportunity.

It leaves me with confused feelings about Dwayne Haskins, confused feelings about Ron Rivera, and confused feelings about the Washington Football Team.

Did a new era begin with the hiring of Ron Rivera? Or is Ron, in an ironic mirroring of his young signal caller, Dwayne Haskins, simply destined to lose the confidence of the team and his boss, and end up just one more body on the pile behind the Ashburn headquarters?

I just don’t know what to think.