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The 5 O’Clock Club: Ron Rivera is ready to win now with great defense and a low-cost QB

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

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Washington Football Team Off-Season Workout Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The 5 o’clock club is published from time to time 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.

In January 2018, I wrote a pair of 5 o’clock club articles, a week apart, in which I argued that, having drafted Jonathan Allen a year earlier, Washington was in a position to change the direction that it had followed for years of trying (unsuccessfully) to build an offensive juggernaut, and focus instead on creating a top-10 defense, which I believed it could do with a defensive focus in the upcoming drafts.

The second of the two articles was focused on the idea that the team could win and, more importantly, maintain a winning roster year in and year out, if the front office focused on signing a capable quarterback at to a mid-level contract, leaving enough cap space and draft picks available to keep the roster stocked.

At that time, the Washington front office said it was negotiating with Kirk Cousins on a long-term contract. My argument was that Cousins was capable enough, but that, in order to afford the kind of roster Cousins needed to win games, the Redskins couldn’t pay him more than $22m or $23m per year on average.

It wasn’t clear that Kirk would agree to that amount of money, so I offered a list of six quarterbacks that could be signed at $23m APY (average per year) or lower. Those six guys were Case Keenum, who had just shown what he could do with a defense in Minnesota, Teddy Bridgewater, who hadn’t played for two years but was a former first-round talent, AJ McCarron, a 4-year backup in Cincinnati who was a pending free agent at the time, Alex Smith, whose time in Kansas City was clearly at an end, Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was in Tampa Bay with Jameis Winston and could probably be acquired in a trade, and Ryan Tannehill, who appeared to be done in Miami and available in trade.

Hindsight shows that I was probably completely wrong about McCarron’s ability to become an NFL starter, and that Bridgewater probably wouldn’t have won enough games if we had signed him.

Tannehill, of course, has thrived since leaving Miami and joining a Tennessee Titans, though he hasn’t always enjoyed great defensive play with his new team.

Interestingly, 3 of the 6 guys on my list have since signed contracts with Washington.

The Alex Smith tenure

Of course, just three weeks after I wrote the article putting Alex on my list of quarterback targets, Washington traded for him and signed him to a contract worth $22.5m per year — in the top end of my target salary range.

Alex Smith proved that he was capable of winning with defense, going 6-4 in 2018 with a decent (16th ranked) defense, and 5-1 in 2020 with a top-tier (5th ranked) defense. His 11-5 record as a starter in Washington is indicative of what’s possible with a guy who knows how to control turnovers and field position and rely on his defense.

Case Keenum’s short run

Case Keenum was signed in 2019, months after Smith’s injury seemed to have ended his career. Keenum was intended to be a bridge to the Dwayne Haskins era, and he looked pretty good to open the ‘19 season; Keenum, in fact, played pretty well until he got injured, ending all hope for Jay Gruden’s efforts to extend his Washington tenure, and indirectly providing the catalyst for the end of the Bruce Allen era as well.

The Fitzpatrick era

Now it’s Ryan Fitzpatrick’s turn. While Alex Smith was the type to use a great defense carefully and support it by not squandering possessions or field position, Ryan Fitzpatrick is the type to take chances to put points on the board, and hope that the defense will bail him out when he makes mistakes.

Alex Smith’s offense relied heavily on passes to the tight end and running back, and rarely scored more than 20 points in a game. Fitzpatrick, by contrast, will put on an air show.

If Fitzpatrick can learn that having a great defense means that he doesn’t need to play hero ball to keep his team from falling behind by three scores, then he should be capable of winning more than he loses. There are lots of strong indications that he actually already knows how to do that, and his $10m contract makes him a great value proposition if he actually does.

I’ve seen some charts this week that I find interesting. The first was published by Over The Cap just yesterday. The X-axis shows each team’s 2021 quarterback spending, while the y-axis shows the spending on the top-20 non-quarterbacks on the roster.

Teams in the upper right quadrant of this chart have a high-dollar quarterback with a high-dollar roster. You’ll see Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay team there. The upper-left shows teams spending a lot of money on the roster with a cheap quarterback. Cleveland, Arizona, Buffalo and the Giants all show up here due to their rookie QB and a lot of spending on veteran rosters to support them. In the lower right you see teams spending a lot on the QB and not a lot to other players — Matt Ryan in Atlanta, Kirk Cousins in Minnesota, Russell Wilson in Seattle.

Washington’s approach to roster-building

Washington appears in the lower left quadrant of the OTC chart. Of the teams in this quadrant, only Washington and Pittsburgh have veteran quarterbacks. Pittsburgh is here because their cap situation is a hot mess, but Washington has ended up as the other odd duck in this group precisely because Ron Rivera chose not to draft a rookie quarterback this year, opting instead to use his draft capital to build the rest of the team, taking a linebacker, offensive tackle, cornerback, wide receiver, and tight end in the first four rounds of this year’s draft.

Here’s what head coach Ron Rivera said about that:

It was a big conversation we had, talking about the quarterback position, talking about the young men that we really liked a lot, but we also talked about an opportunity to solidify some other things, and if we dealt too much draft capital, we’d lose that opportunity. We really felt strongly about just holding and just trying to fill the rest of the needs.

Rivera had spoken in the past about his experience with the Carolina Panthers, where he started his coaching tenure with a great QB in Cam Newton and tried to build a team around him. Rivera said he’d always wondered what it would be like to go the other route and build the team first, before adding the quarterback as the final piece of the puzzle.

It looks as if Ron’s vision of a complete team is nearly fulfilled. Sure, the Football Team could use some tight end depth and an upgrade at middle linebacker, but, depending on what you think about Ryan Fitzpatrick, this team appears to be playoff-ready, with tons of flexibility to customize the team in 2022 due to its low-cost roster, low-cost quarterback and youthful core of good players on rookie contracts.

Ryan Fitzpatrick has doubters

The biggest question that analysts have about the team is whether Ryan Fitzpatrick is capable of winning. Marc Ross of NFL Network said this week that he isn’t.

He’s average because the best he’s ever been is average. Has he had a couple of 400-yard games once or twice a season? Absolutely. But the entirety of every season and his career is mediocrity.

Why has this guy been on nine teams? Why has he never been to the playoffs? Why does he have 30 less wins than losses?

You just have to base it on the common sense there and the facts. It’s nothing personal; it’s just the facts when it comes to Ryan Fitzpatrick.

If Ross is right, then Washington is probably just wasting its time with Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2021.

Lots of reasons to believe in Ryan Fitzpatrick

Ron Rivera believes that Marc Ross is wrong; Rivera is banking on Ryan Fitzpatrick to be able to lead the Football Team to a second consecutive division title and a spot in the playoffs.

The numbers suggest that head coach Rivera knows more about Fitzpatrick than media personality Marc Ross does. While Fitzpatrick has a reputation as a quarterback who is streaky and incapable of winning consistently in the NFL due to his propensity to hurt his team with turnovers, that view is outdated and based on the kind of football that No. 14 has largely put in his rear-view mirror. Ryan Fitzpatrick is playing some of the best football of his career right now.

Over his last 16 starts, Fitzpatrick has thrown for nearly 4,500 yards with 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. That’s a major upgrade from the QB play Washington received over its last 16 games.

Fitzpatrick may not have been a high-quality NFL starter when he was drafted in the 7th round out of Harvard, but that was sixteen years ago. Ryan Fitzpatrick has thrown for nearly 35,000 yards and 223 touchdowns since then. He’s learned a lot, and, of late, has developed into one of the better quarterbacks in the league. For example, Ryan Fitzpatrick was ranked 5th in ESPN’s quarterback rating (QBR) in 2020 and he ranked 8th in 2019.

Lack of support

Ryan Fitzpatrick has been unfortunate enough to play on a lot of bad teams in his career, and has seldom been afforded much protection by his offensive lines. Consider this chart, published by PFF this week:

This chart is not a measurement of performance where it is best to be up high on the right side; instead, it is a chart of how quickly a quarterback releases the ball relative to how much time he has had in the pocket before being pressured over his career.

What this shows (see the big yellow arrow) is that in his 16-year career, Ryan Fitzpatrick has been put under pressure by the defense faster than any other quarterback shown on the chart. The issue hasn’t been that Ryan Fitzpatrick is a bad quarterback, but that he has rarely gotten any help. What is amazing is how much Fitzpatrick has been able to accomplish with so little support!

When Fitzy has a defense

Last month, KyleSmithforGM published an article that looked at how well Ryan Fitzpatrick has performed when he has played with a good defense. His conclusions were interesting.

This chart shows Fitzpatrick’s QBR mapped against his team’s defensive ranking

Presented this way, one notices several things. First, since about 2013 (and excepting 2016) Fitzpatrick’s play level has been on a steady upward trajectory, with the best seasons in the middle of his career coming with the best defenses that he had played with to-date (on the Texans and Jets). For the past three seasons, though, we see Fitzpatrick bucking a bit of a trend, playing some of his best football in spite of his two worst defenses, in 2018 and 2019, and then - probably not surprisingly - having a great season playing with the highest ranked defense of his career, the 2020 Dolphins.

In my estimation, this bodes very well for Washington in 2021. Washington’s defense last year - ranked 4th in the NFL - was better than any defense Fitzpatrick has played alongside in his career, and it appears to have improved this offseason. I would be surprised if, given the historical pattern of Ryan’s career this doesn’t end up being his best statistical season, assuming he’s able to stay healthy and resist the urge to try to put this team on his back.

A year ago, Miami’s defense was ranked only 19th as measured by yards per game given up, but they were actually 4th in the NFL in the more important statistic of points given up. That’s an incredible turnaround from 2019, when they were last in the league, and playing with that strong defense seemed to lift Fitzpatrick’s play.

What can we expect in 2021?

Fitzpatrick’s situation in Washington this season is likely to be the best that he has ever had.

Analysts around the league are predicting that Washington will field one of the best, if not the best defense in the NFL in 2021.

The Washington front office has done a lot to improve the receiving weapons available to Fitzpatrick, and has also worked to improve the quality and depth of the offensive line, which was rated 6th best in the NFL by PFF at the end of the 2020 season.

Related articles

Washington’s defense is littered with players ranked among the best at their positions by PFF

PFF ranks many of Washington’s offensive players among the NFL’s best

Fitzpatrick is playing the best football of his career, earning back-to-back top-8 QBR rankings playing in Miami, and throwing for over 4,400 yards in his last 16 games, with a 2 to 1 touchdown to interception ratio.

I think Ron Rivera knows what he is doing. Last season, he managed to win consistently with a top-5 defense and Alex Smith playing on one good leg. His defense is better this year with a more experienced Chase Young, a healthy Matt Ioannidis, and the addition of veterans like CB William Jackson and FS Bobby McCain, and rookies Jamin Davis and Benjamin St-Juste. With a healthy Ryan Fitzpatrick entering training camp as the clear #1 guy for the first time in years, expectations should be high for the Football Team in 2021.


What should Washington fan expectations be for Ryan Fitzpatrick this season?

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    He’ll play only a partial season due to injury
    (35 votes)
  • 4%
    He’ll play only a partial season because he’ll be benched by the coaching staff at least once
    (50 votes)
  • 1%
    He’ll fail to win the QB competition in training camp and will be the backup in Week 1
    (20 votes)
  • 3%
    He’ll be the regular starter, but no division title and no playoffs
    (37 votes)
  • 10%
    He’ll be the regular starter; Washington will make the playoffs but lose in the first game
    (111 votes)
  • 65%
    The team gets its first playoff win since 2005 under Fitzpatrick
    (714 votes)
  • 11%
    Lombardi Trophy, baby!!!
    (127 votes)
1094 votes total Vote Now