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Changing the national narrative about the Washington Football Team

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Washington Football Team v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The NFL schedule makers did Ron Rivera and his players a big favor this season; they gave them a bunch of games at 1:00 pm on Sundays, with only a single nationally televised game. Washington, after all, is known, even among its own fans — especially among its own fans — as being a team that struggles in prime time. So, it was kind of a relief in this season of low expectations to know that the only nationally televised game the Football Team would be playing in 2020 would come on Thanksgiving day.

While Washington teams haven’t really played well in prime time over the past couple of decades, playing in front of a national audience is a sword that has the potential to cut two ways. If the team embarrasses itself by playing badly, that intensifies the already-poor impression most NFL fans have of the team. However, coming out and playing well can send a message, too.

In this case, when the message is sent by an organization that has a new and highly-respected head coach in a game that features young talent like rookie Antonio Gibson and second-year players like Terry McLaurin and Montez Sweat, it has the capacity to change the national narrative. When the result is a 41-16 beatdown of arch division rival and the self-annointed “America’s Team”, the Dallas Cowboys, as nearly all American NFL fans relax in their living rooms digesting their Thanksgiving feasts, it is the type of game that grabs attention.

Antonio Gibson

Fantasy football players were already aware of Antonio Gibson. Smart fantasy owners had drafted him pretty late and gotten some good return on investment over the past few weeks, but, chances are, those fantasy owners who don’t happen to be NFC East fans may not have actually seen Gibson play a game. That would have changed on Thursday, when Gibson pushed himself to the forefront of the NFL conversation with his 20 carries for 115 yards and 3 touchdowns, supplemented by 5 receptions for 21 yards.

Prior to the start of the season, I had written what most did — that Gibson would likely get a lot of action as a receiver in Washington’s offense in 2020. This was based in part on his history as a receiver, but it was also because of Washington’s lack of receiving threats at WR and TE. From early in the season, however, it became obvious that the coaches saw Gibson as a running back, and he was getting the bulk of his touches in the form of handoffs from the quarterback. Still, as the season progressed, and even as late as the Thanksgiving Day game, pre-game shows and booth analysts were telling fans tuning in for the broadcast that Gibson was really more of a receiver than a runner, as if they hadn’t actually watched any film of the team playing but had merely read the post-draft reports on the former Memphis Tiger.

All season long, Gibson has been the Football Team’s primary running back, and he’s been getting better every week. After breaking out in the week 7 game against Dallas in D.C., Gibson had another strong game in Week 11, putting up over 100 srimmage yards on offense and scoring a touchdown against the Bengals.

This week in Dallas, Gibson raised his game to the next level.

That lingering notion that Gibson was some sort of hybrid receiver-cum-running-back was likely put to bed on Thursday, as Antonio Gibson ran inside and outside of the tackles and romped to for 90+ yards for the third time in the past five games. NFL fans around the U.S. got what was likely their first real look at the rookie, and he made an impression.

Terry McLaurin

Terry McLaurin burst on the scene early as a rookie in 2019, setting records for receiving yards and touchdown catches in his first five games as a pro. Fantasy football made sure that Terry was well-known across the league before this season started, so his 7 catches for 92 yards against the Cowboys on Thursday afternoon probably didn’t turn any heads.

Terry has quietly amassed impressive statistics this season, catching passes from three different quarterbacks. In fact, in his 26 games as a pro, McLaurin has had to weave his magic with 5 different passers — Dwayne Haskins, Colt McCoy, Case Keenum, Kyle Allen, and Alex Smith. Can you imagine what he’d be doing if he played with Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes?

At this point in the season, Terry McLaurin leads the NFL in receiving yards, with 963, and is tied for 6th in receptions. For those who would point to the fact that he has played in 11 games while some receivers have played in only ten, Terry is 6th in yards per game despite playing on an offense that is ranked 25th in passing-yards-per-game.

Terry McLaurin made his play of the day on Thursday, not by making a catch, but by making a tackle.

When Jaylen Smith intercepted an errant Alex Smith pass at the Washington 47 yard-line and took off running, it looked like a certain pick-6 — and one that would tie the game up at 20-20. But Terry McLaurin didn’t think so.

McLaurin turned on his 4.4 speed and took off after Smith, chasing him down and tackling him inside the 5 yard line, preventing what had looked, just moments before, like a sure touchdown. In most games, this would have been a purely moral victory, as most offenses come out and pound in a touchdown in this situation. But not on Thursday...not these Cowboys against this Washington defense. Dallas actually lost yardage on the next two plays and had to settle for a field goal, meaning that McLaurin’s hustle downfield for the shoestring tackle was good for a 4-point difference on the scoreboard.

Many fans likened Terry’s effort to that of DK Metcalf making a similar tackle a few weeks ago. I prefer to compare it to another great Washington player running down another great Cowboy:

When Landon Collins was lost for the season to an Achilles injury a few weeks back, players voted for a new team captain to replace him, and they turned to the 2nd year receiver. It was the kind of “no surrender” mentality that Terry showed on this incredible play that led his teammates to vote for him, and this kind of gritty play is why McLaurin has the “C” on his jersey.

Montez Sweat

Mock draft enthusiasts would all have known Montez Sweat last year, as he was generally projected as the first-round selection he turned out to be, but the defensive end has not really claimed the national spotlight, and has been overshadowed in the press this season by his more celebrated teammate, rookie Chase Young, despite Sweat’s impressive on-field performances and statistical production. I think that Sweat is often under-appreciated even by Washington fans.

Sweat has clearly benefited from Young’s presence on the defense, but he had already shown in the second half of the ‘19 season that he’s a very capable defender. So far in 2020, Montez Sweat has built on his rookie success and the change in defensive schemes, and has been extremely productive. Sweat has accumulated 6 sacks in 11 games (compared to 7 for his entire rookie season). You can add to that 13 QB hits (equaling his rookie year production), 7 tackles for loss (vs 8 in all of 2019), 2 passes defended (same as total rookie year), 2 forced fumbles (equaling his ‘19 total), and this week’s interception returned for a touchdown.

Montez Sweat is physically gifted. At 6’6”, he has incredible reach (what the draft gurus like to refer to as great length) and he ran a 4.41 40 at the combine a year ago. This makes him a strong run defender, a superior pass rusher, and a key part of the current 4-3 defense coached by Jack Del Rio.

The only problem with Sweat’s pick-6 in terms of re-writing the national narrative is that it came as late in the game as it did — likely a minute or so after many fans, weary from a long Thanksgiving day and convinced that Washington had already stuck a fork into the Cowboys, had turned off the game, which went from a blowout to a complete rout with Sweat’s huge play. On almost any other day in the NFL season, this play would have been on every highlight reel shown on Sunday and Monday, but this week it was simply the cherry atop a very delicious Thanksgiving dessert for Washington fans.

Logan Thomas

Thomas seemed to most fans to be a somewhat indifferent tight end prospect coming into the 2020 season, and his early games didn’t do a lot to change that impression. He made some plays but failed to make others. Last week against Cincinnati, he had a high-profile drop that seemed to overshadow what was otherwise a very good game — one in which a second down reception and a third-down quarterback sneak led to 7 points being added to the scoreboard, and in which his blocking was solid on many plays, but most significantly on Antonio Gibson’s touchdown run.

Following up on that good performance, Logan Thomas showed up with another stud performance, on the national stage this time, showing himself to be a multi-faceted weapon, and contributing strongly to the team’s domination of the Cowboys.

While Thomas didn’t wow with his stats as a pass catcher, getting just 20 yards on 4 catches, he certainly did wow with his 28-yard pass completion to Terry McLaurin, which came on a bit of a gadget play that started off looking like a complicated end-around that the Dallas defense had sniffed out.

When Thomas pulled up and cocked his arm for the throw, it was a surprise. The further surprise came when he eschewed the shorter pass to Cam Sims to hit an open Terry McLaurin who was 15 yards further downfield. I have to think that was the moment when most NFL fans remembered that Thomas was a college and pro quarterback before converting to tight end in his third NFL season.

While his 2020 performance isn’t going to get him a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, this has been a breakout season for Thomas, who now has 34 catches for 328 yards and 4 touchdowns as a pass catcher and has served as a credible blocker all season long. Last week he added the aforementioned quarterback sneak to keep a drive alive, leading to a touchdown, and this week threw the huge pass to Terry McLaurin on Washington’s 7th offensive snap — a play that set up the game’s initial touchdown. Already this week, I have seen comments from people comparing Thomas to the Saints’ Taysom Hill.

Suddenly, a career that seemed to be at a dead-end is looking very much brighter.

Alex Smith

In addition to the normal tradition of football on Thanksgiving, I imagine the reason a lot of people would have tuned into this matchup of two 3-7 teams would have been to see Alex Smith starting a football game.

I suspect every NFL fan knows the Alex Smith story, and I’m guessing a majority of them have seen the ESPN special, Project 11, which detailed Alex Smith’s journey from a gruesome injury in at FedEx Field in 2018 to his return to football in 2020. Along the way, bacterial infections caused sepsis, leading to 17 surgeries and a fight, initially, to save the leg from amputation, and eventually a fight to save Smith’s life. That he wound up back in pads on an NFL football at all is amazing; it seems miraculous that he is once again a starting quarterback, facing a weekly pass rush from NFL defensive linemen.

After throwing for a total of more than 700 yards in consecutive losses to the Giants and Lions, his more modest totals of 166 and 149 yards in back-to-back wins against the Bengals and Cowboys may seem unimpressive, but Alex Smith doesn’t have a history of compiling stats; rather, he has a history of compiling wins. From 2009 to 2017, playing for two different teams and several offensive coordinators, Smith averaged 11 wins for every 16 starts. In Washington, he has a record of 8-5 as a starter, while all other Washington quarterbacks during his time with the burgundy & gold have a combined record of 6-25. While some criticize Smith for his conservative style of play, it’s hard to deny that he knows how to position his team to win.

I can’t help but think that NFL fans tuning in for this game expecting to see a 36-year-old who had been hobbled by a horrible injury just two years ago struggling on an NFL field would have been amazed to see Smith — a bit less athletic than he used to be, but very much in control of the offense and able to do what’s necessary to protect himself and lead his team to victory.

Scott Turner

Ron Rivera is well-known in the NFL, and has a wonderful reputation as a coach, a motivator and a man. Likewise, Jack Del Rio, the defensive coordinator, has his own impressive reputation. Both men have built their legacies through on-field play as NFL linebackers and long careers that include time as assistant coaches, coordinators and head coaches.

The same is not true of offensive coordinator, Scott Turner. If NFL fans know him at all, it is likely as nothing more than Norv Turner’s son.

Coming to Washington as the new offensive coordinator under Ron Rivera this year, expectations were that Turner would bring a creative 2-back offense that would feature pre-snap motions, jet sweep action, combination blocking and misdirection to help make up for the lack of top-end offensive talent outside of Terry McLaurin.

A half-dozen games into the season, fans were asking where that highly creative offense was, since there’d been little sign of it on the football field from the Washington offense.

Those questions have been answered more and more completely in recent weeks with Alex Smith at the helm. With the experienced quarterback behind center, the entire playbook (aside from, perhaps, quarterback runs) is available. Week by week for the past month, Scott Turner’s playcalling has become more creative.

The running game is coming alive as Gibson develops into a better running back every week. The offensive line, which had struggled in August, is looking much more cohesive in November, especially in the past two games since Morgan Moses made the move from right tackle to left tackle. You can see the angles of attack in the running game are more diverse and more effective. The passing game has developed by light years since the first two or three weeks when inexperienced Washington receivers were often running to almost the exact same spot on the field and throws were often early, late, wide or high.

Receivers have told reporters in the past couple of weeks how Alex Smith, with his 16 years of NFL experience, brings a whole new level of confidence and competence to the field. With Smith behind center, a competent offensive line, and a pair of dynamic running backs in Gibson and JD McKissic, the offense, while not likely to threaten to break into the top-10 in scoring, looks efficient, and the team is playing complementary football in all three phases.

This has allowed Scott Turner to go a bit deeper in the playbook than might otherwise be the case.

As mentioned, in Week 11 against the Bengals, tight end Logan Thomas motioned across the formation, stopped behind center, took the snap, and ran a successful “tight end sneak” on a 3rd & 2, keeping a drive alive and leading to a touchdown three plays later. This week, of course, Thomas had the rare “tight end pass” that was completed for 28 yards, proving that Taysom Hill isn’t the only tight end in the league who can throw a tight spiral for a long gain.

But Logan Thomas’ pass was not the creative highlight of the season for Scott Turner; in fact, it wasn’t even the most creative play of the day. Turner also called the “Bumerooski” — a name revealed by Ron Rivera at the post-game press conference.

Here’s a look at the play, and the 1984 “Fumblerooski” made famous by the Cornhuskers.

Rivera, however, didn’t credit Nebraska with inspiring the play. Instead, he talked about watching the movie “Little Giants” over and over again with his daughter Stephanie when she was young. Their play, “The Annexation of Peurto Rico”, which is glimpsed in the tweet below, was offered as the original inspiration. During his press conference, Rivera said that the younger players weren’t familiar with long-time coach Bum Phillips, so Rivera told them about him, and the play was named in his honor.

Gadget plays are not the staple of any successful offense, but the occasional “trick” play, called at the right time, can create a momentum swing and act as a motivator for the team that pulls it off.

Of course, the opposite is true. Call a trick play at the wrong time and have the defense sniff it out and defeat it, and it can adversely affect the course of the game for the team unfortunate enough to have tried to run it. The “swinging gate” play called by former head coach Jim Zorn lives in infamy in Redskins lore. I suspect that Cowboys fans will be talking for years to come about the failed attempt at a fake punt on fourth down from the Cowboys own 24-yard line. That was a play that proved that being creative isn’t enough. The Washington special teams coaches had anticipated the Cowboys’ tendency to run fake punts, had warned the players, prepared for them in practice, and they ran a “prevent defense” on the play instead of a standard punt return. The successful execution, growing out of careful preparation, led to Washington’s third touchdown — 23-yards Antonio Gibson run — on the very next play.

Tress Way

Over the past few seasons of losing football, Washington fans have often said — not joking as much as you might imagine — that the punter Tress Way is our most valuable player. He is certainly, in our eyes at least, one of the most effective punters in the NFL, kicking the ball deep when he needs to. But Way’s real magic comes in his ability to drop a football inside the ten yard line the way a professional golfer chips a ball onto the putting green.

Way had only two punts on Thanksgiving day, The first was a 60-yard effort with a 9-yard return for a net of 51 yards. The second was a 57-yarder that was downed at the Dallas 12-yard line.

I’m not sure how many punting connoisseurs there are in America, but any who watched this game need to vote Tress Way into the pro bowl.

A team effort; a team win

I’ve highlighted a handful of players and coaches here, but, truly, this was a team win, and it would be possible to go through the entire roster roster of players and name a positive contribution for nearly every one of them. For instance, Cole Holcomb, Daron Payne, Chase Young, Jeremy Reaves, and Tim Settle were all credited with quarterback sacks; in addition, Kamren Curl, Khaleke Hudson and Cole Luke showed up in the box score with tackles for loss. The much-maligned Troy Apke made a bone crunching tackle late in the game to also get in on the fun.

A breakdown of the offensive line performance would show more good than bad, and, for the first time in a while, the kicker, Dustin Hopkins, was perfect on his kicking attempts.

Any NFL fan who hadn’t seen the Washington Football Team play this season — and perhaps many who had — were probably surprised, and more than a little impressed by what Ron Rivera’s squad did on the field.

This was the kind of performance, put on, as it was, in front of a national TV audience, that can change the narrative of a team’s season. In the case of the Washington franchise, it feels like even more than that. This is a franchise in flux. They have (or don’t have) a new name; the franchise fired the team president and coaching staff at the end of last season, and there have been two purges in the front office since January. Jason Wright has taken over as team president; Julie Donaldson took on a senior media role; Ron Rivera is focused, not just on building a winning football team, but on instilling a new culture from top to bottom.

Two decades of losing and dysfunction are not erased in a single afternoon of football, no matter how many people are watching, but the victory in Dallas felt like a watershed moment for the new regime. Washington showed up to play. The Washington coaches were better than the Dallas coaches. The Washington players were better than the Dallas players.

The result was, at least for the moment, a spot at the top of the NFC East rankings and a chance to stay there if the team can keep on winning.

Doing it all on Thanksgiving day, with perhaps 20 million people watching may, when we look back some day, be seen as the first major sign that a new day has dawned in Washington. There’s a long way to go. Jason Wright has already said that it may not be until after the 2021 season that the franchise gets its new nickname. Filling the roster up with talent will likely take at least one more draft and free agent class, and there are major questions about what will happen at the quarterback position in 2021 and beyond. This Washington team may not win consistently yet, but this week, the team made a statement; they said to the world that they will play hard and play to win; they said that this is a legitimate NFL football team, and not the punch line to a joke. They said that they need to be taken seriously.

I think that any NFL fan that watched the game will find it hard to disagree.

When I talk about changing the national narrative about the Washington Football Team, I’m talking about the kind of comments you’ll hear from Nate Burleson and Kyle Brandt in this clip from GMFB:

NFL Reacts results

SB Nation polls every NFL fan base every week to see how confident readers are in the direction of their respective teams. This week, fan confidence rose sharply from 53% a week earlier to 73% following the win against the Bengals on Sunday.

In the wake of this week’s statement win against the team’s hated division rival (a sweep of Dallas on the season for the first time since RG3’s rookie season under head coach Mike Shanahan in 2012), I suspect we’ll see another sharp spike in fan confidence. The offense looked good against the Cowboys; the defense looked better. The coaching staff seems to be on track, and messages from people like President Jason Wright and Senior Vice President of Media, Julie Donaldson are refreshingly open and positive after a decade of smug arrogance and opaqueness from former President Bruce Allen. True, Dan Snyder remains, but some battles can’t be won.

Washington’s arrow seems to be pointed north, but significant challenges lie in the immediate future. The team’s next game is a road trip to Pittsburgh to face the currently undefeated Steelers. A week after that, it’s another road trip to the west coast to play the 49ers.

The good feelings may not last, but for the moment, the Washington Football Team and its fans are having fun.

Join the fun

You can be a part of NFL Reacts. There is a poll every week during the regular season, and at key points during the off-season that covers things like fan confidence in the direction of the team, the most exciting games each week, and a fan Pick’em where you get to predict the winners of every game on the schedule.

If you’d like to become part of the process, you can sign up to NFL Reacts by clicking here.

You’ll get a survey via email each week that takes just two minutes to complete.

Make your voice heard as part of the Hogs Haven fan base!