Fan confidence in the NFC East
When it comes to the NFC East, the only fans that are showing any real confidence in their team are those rooting for Dallas, and with good reason. The Cowboys are riding high after an overtime win in New England on Sunday gave them their 5th straight win and raised their record to 5-1 on the season.
The current division standings show Dallas with a commanding lead over the rest of the division:
Fan confidence in Philly, Washington & New York has collapsed. Eagles fan confidence stands at 19%, WFT fan confidence at 16%, and Giants fan confidence at just 11%.
The Cowboys are on a bye this week, so at least they won’t be getting another win.
Washington, Philly and New York are all underdogs this week:
- Washington at Green Bay (-9.5)
- Eagles at Raiders (-3)
- Panthers at Giants (+2.5)
SB Nation readers agree with the Vegas bookmakers
Is it time to shake things up at QB?
With the losses against good teams piling up and the schedule offering no immediate relief, sports writers are now openly asking if the Taylor Heinicke experiment needs to end. A major question bandied about on Twitter, on blogs and on talk radio has been: “Should the team turn to Kyle Allen at quarterback?”
For the moment, the answer from Ron Rivera is ‘no’, and The Athletic summarized the issue in an article this week.
It’s fair to ask whether Taylor Heinicke should remain the starting quarterback for the Washington Football Team. The thought, however, isn’t entirely about his performance.
Like the team itself, Heinicke’s weaknesses flash against good opponents but otherwise take a backseat to his impressive spontaneity against comparable or inferior foes. There’s just no hiding his limitations in size and arm strength, especially with more exposure and injuries on offense piling up.
There’s also no point in ignoring what coach Ron Rivera said about his backup, Kyle Allen, last season.
Washington improbably clinched the NFC East title by winning five of its final seven regular-season games. Because the surge occurred primarily with Alex Smith at quarterback, Rivera was asked if the team could have achieved such a level of success without him.
“Well, if we had a healthy Kyle Allen, I think we could’ve,” Rivera said before the Week 17 game against the Eagles. “I really do. I think we could’ve. Part of the reason is because Kyle, he’s very similar to Alex in terms of his abilities. He’s got the same kind of arm. He makes good decisions like Alex does. He’s got good footwork. I think we could’ve been. I do.”
Debating the either-or aspect is moot. The comment provided another reminder of Rivera’s fondness for a quarterback he welcomed into the NFL as an undrafted rookie with Carolina, then acquired for a fifth-round pick upon arriving in Washington.
Having lost three of four games by an average of 17 points, Washington is laboring. It settled for field goals over the past two games and managed only one touchdown in the 31-13 loss Sunday to Kansas City, which had allowed at least 29 points in each of its previous five games.
Washington’s 2-4 record doesn’t fall at the feet of the mobile Heinicke. With Ryan Fitzpatrick’s recovery timeline unclear after a Week 1 injury and the team’s rut hardening, considering a switch to a player who Rivera said could have sparked the team successfully last season if not for a season-ending ankle injury seems worthwhile.
“No,” Rivera said Monday when presented with the scenario. “I’ve been very confident in what we’ve done with Taylor.”
Heinicke’s remains a popular underdog story, but his inability to produce a winning record is highlighting many deficiencies in the team and the organization that go far beyond the quarterback position.
What’s driving fan confidence down?
The factors that have affected Washington fans are many and varied, and are not all related to on-field play. After a year of apparent change in 2020 that had boosted expectations that the new team of Jason Wright, Ron Rivera, Martin Mayhew, and Marty Hurney together with Tanya Snyder, who has stepped in to run the team in the absence of her husband Dan Snyder, who was suspended following an investigation into two decades of ‘toxic’ work practices at Ashburn, headlines in recent days and weeks have indicated that maybe nothing has really changed for the Snyder era franchise.
An early misstep came in September when the team released an ill-timed teaser video about the name change. Coming as it did just as the regular season was about to begin, the video had a very different effect than intended. Divisive arguments about the name, the decision making process and even the status of which names were under consideration broke out in social media and on local talk radio. Instead of fans galvanizing around the team at the start of a promising season, they were sniping and quarreling over a name change process that we had already been told was on ice until 2022. This misstep by the Washington executive team led to a lot of unnecessary angst among fans.
At the same time, Washington players were making headlines for the low COVID vaccination rate. Ron Rivera was openly expressing his frustration and talking about his own compromised immune system as a result of his recent cancer treatments. He made multiple references to certain players being “dug in” to their position on vaccines, and it was easy to read the situation as divisive in the locker room. It certainly offered an opportunity for more division among fans, who, like the broader society in America, were not in complete agreement about the value of vaccinations.
Of course, the main driver of fan confidence is on-field play, and there’s been little enough good play this season to promote good feelings in the fans. Early on, the defensive secondary looked confused and in disarray; as week followed week, it became apparent that the significant money being paid to safeties Landon Collins and Bobby McCain, and to CB William Jackson wasn’t providing the needed return. Similarly, the draft capital invested into LB Jamin Davis wasn’t bringing early returns. It had been understood from the time that he had been drafted that Davis was a bit raw and would need time to develop, but as his snap counts dwindled (he played just 13 snaps against the Saints, even though starting LB Jon Bostic had been lost to an injury a week earlier) questions about the off season roster decisions were raised.
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Significantly, the coaches — and the head coach in particular — seemed to have no answers for those questions aside from saying week after week that it was “a lot of little things” that the coaches and players would “continue to work on” because “that’s all we can do”.
Ron Rivera seemed to lack awareness of just how badly his team, and in particular, his 31st ranked defense, was playing, suggesting after the Week 5 loss at home to the Saints that the team was just a handful of plays away from winning the game, and that if just two plays on defense — two massive touchdown passes of 72 and 49 yards — hadn’t happened, that it would have been a very different game.
The message seemed to get through to the head coach after another home loss to the Chiefs in Week 6. This time, his defense played very well in the first half, taking the ball away from the high-powered Kansas City offense three times in the first thirty minutes of play, but the WFT offense was only able to put up 13 first half points against the league’s worst-ranked defense. When the Chiefs shut out the Football Team 21-0 in the second half, that seemed to be the final straw for Ron Rivera, who spoke in an early-week press conference about the need to change his approach.
And, boy, did the coach come out firing. Having seen his defense play two good quarters in six games, and having seen that they had given up more points per game (31) than any other defense in the league, and with his offense sputtering and struggling with fumbles and turnovers, Ron Rivera took decisive action on Wednesday by cutting the placekicker, Dustin Hopkins.
He cut the place kicker??
This was a puzzling move. While Hopkins has not been perfect by any measure, he’s been pretty much what any team can expect from an NFL kicker in 2021.
With two missed field goals and two missed extra point attempts, and 46 points scored on the season, Hopkins’ performance is pretty typical of his cohort. One easy measure of kicker accuracy is points-per-field-goal-attempt. Hopkins was tied for 12th in the NFL at 2.6. He was 27th in extra point accuracy, at just 83.3%, but an expanded view of his kicking performance since overcoming early season problems from 2020 show that he had been among the league’s most efficient of late. In the 14 games he played from Week 11 last season through the Chiefs game, Hopkins had hit 26/29 field goals (89.6%) and 24/27 PATs. That’s actually pretty good.
Ron goes conservative, falters, and decides to cut the kicker
But, honestly, I’m not deeply offended by the placekicker getting cut from the roster. I can’t imagine anyone but Mrs. Hopkins feeling that Dustin didn’t get a fair shake — NFL players get cut all the time — but there are a few factors here that niggle at my brain.
The first issue is the guy that was hired to replace Hopkins. Mid-season kicker replacements are dicey at the best of times, but Chris Blewitt is a guy who hasn’t attempted a field goal in a regular season game since 2016, when he was kicking for the University of Pittsburgh, where he had a career average under 70% on field goals. I will be among the first to sing his praises if Chris Blewitt comes onto the field in burgundy & gold and routinely kicks well and handles pressure kicks with nerves of steel, but he seems to be an odd horse to back in Week 7.
The second issue is a small one, but, with Hopkins being on a guaranteed contract, the team will be using salary cap space to pay two kickers from Week 7 onward. Hopkins had qualified for a veteran benefit contract, which means his cap hit was less than his actual salary. With Hopkins out and Blewitt in, the team is paying more for the kicker position with no real reason to believe that the new guy will win games that the old guy couldn’t.
The third issue is that Ron Rivera started his campaign to do things differently by going after the kicker. I mean, if there’s a player on the field who has earned a target on his back, both for his poor play and because of his generous contract, that player would be Landon Collins. When he was signed in 2019, Collins was supposed to be a cornerstone for the roster for the coming half-decade; instead, he has been more of millstone around the neck of the defense. Collins is frequently out of place and regularly burned in pass coverage. Far from playing like an all-pro, he has often looked like an overmatched undrafted college free agent in the games when he has been healthy and on the field. If Rivera wants to send a message, there seem to be plenty of places to start that don’t involve the kicking game. Personally, I’d’ve started with Collins, but he’s just the guy who has the highest profile among several under-performing defensive players.
Rivera’s words and actions this week reflect fans’ concerns
In a press conference this week, Ron Rivera proclaimed that Landon Collins is best when playing “downhill” from the box. In short, without actually using the word, he proclaimed that Landon Collins is a linebacker.
After a week in which Ron Rivera seemed to be unaware of fan criticism following the loss to the Saints, he now seems to be overly aware of fan sentiment and responding to it following the loss to the Chiefs. Cutting the kicker and declaring that Landon Collins can’t cover receivers in the NFL are the kinds of knee-jerk reactions and obvious declarations that one expects on Twitter, but seem a bit sad when they come from the head coach. It’s almost as if the coach is now ‘playing to the crowd’ by giving them what they’ve been asking for.
Jason Wright and the owners are creating problems too
Of course, this was the week for sad and surprising actions from the leaders of the franchise. This was the week in which Ashburn announced on Thursday, just three days prior to the game, that the late Sean Taylor’s jersey would be retired at a halftime ceremony when the Football Team took on the Chiefs. Anyone who wasn’t in a coma or trekking in the Amazon jungle last week already knows how that turned out. It’s just my personal opinion, but I think the botching of the Sean Taylor memorial will turn out to be the most significant event in the two decades of disillusion and disengagement that has been driven by the Dan Snyder ownership. For all the fuckups that this owner has been responsible for, this is the one that I think will turn out to have been most personal to a huge swath of fans both young and old, and one that will cut deep and feel unforgivable. I think most fans will see this as being along the lines of sleeping with your wife’s sister — it’s not your average mistake. This one is egregious, and it was accompanied by tons of really bad visual images, from the family being photographed in front of porta-potties, to Dan Snyder in an oversized hoodie when he met with the family, to Jack Mahomes ‘dancing’ on Taylor’s number, to the amateur halftime ceremony that comprised little more than a small photo-op.
Fan confidence? The only thing that surprises me at this point is that it’s still at 16%. I’m struggling to understand what those people see that they can still believe in.
The coach seems to be struggling to lead his team or to understand how to make the corrections needed to get wins out of the roster he has spent two years molding. In addition to so many things going wrong on the field, Ron’s hand-picked Head Trainer, Ryan Vermillion appears, based on widely published news reports, to be under investigation by the DEA. Vermillion was brought in from Carolina to replace Larry Hess, whom Rivera fired shortly after arriving in DC.
The front office is beset by continuing scandal, with allegations arising in the media last week that at least some of the women who were victimized by Washington’s two decades of ‘toxic culture’ were offered cash settlements, presumably on the watch of the current WFT administration that was brought in to clean up the mess left behind by Bruce Allen.
With the DEA investigation involving, apparently, two important members of the team’s training staff, the ‘hush money’ being offered on Jason and Ron’s watch, the Sean Taylor number retirement debacle, and the coaching staff’s inability to think of any action more significant than firing Dustin Hopkins to solve the team’s defensive and offensive woes, I just don’t know what there is to feel good about.
But, hey! We’re off to Green Bay on Sunday. Let’s go team.