It’s that time of year when some NFL teams have started looking toward next season. As each club is eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s Washington, who was eliminated from playoff contention after Saturday’s loss to the Titans and the Eagles’ win on Sunday.
What Went Right
Washington was one of the biggest surprises of the first half of the season, jumping out to a 6-3 record and first place in the NFC East. Adrian Peterson was on track for one of the best old-guy running back seasons of all time. Linebacker Zach Brown might be the most underrated linebacker in football, landing third in Pro Football Focus’s grading behind only Seattle’s Bobby Wagner and Carolina’s Luke Kuechly. Safety D.J. Swearinger is a tone-setter both on and off the field. Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan is 11th in the league in pressures among edge defenders, and outside linebacker Preston Smith isn’t far behind at 25th. Head coach Jay Gruden is the best coach in the NFL whose last name is Gruden. But perhaps the most important aspect of Washington’s season was the culture change in the locker room.
A cohort of young Alabama players, including 2017 first-round pick Jonathan Allen, 2017 second-round pick Ryan Anderson, 2018 first-round pick Da’Ron Payne, and 2018 sixth-round pick Shaun Dion Hamilton (all of whom won at least one national championship with the Crimson Tide) fought against the mediocrity that had permeated the organization for years by importing the gospel of Nick Saban.
“We definitely needed a culture change here,” Allen told The Washington Post in late October. Asked to clarify, Allen elaborated. “You have to get used to learning how to win. I feel we are starting to do that. You’re seeing it in us winning games that we might not have won. … It’s just consistency and expectation. It’s the process.”
What Went Wrong
Washington has more players on injured reserve than any other team. Starting quarterback Alex Smith suffered a gruesome broken right leg against the Houston Texans on November 18 that became infected after multiple surgeries.
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HOME...This last month has been a difficult ride. Our family is beyond happy to have this man with us and home. This experience has given us great perspective and gratitude for all the people and blessings in our lives. We couldn’t have gotten through it without our amazing family, friends and community. A special thank you to the relentless doctors, nurses, techs, hospital administrators, the Snyder family and the Washington Redskins.
Smith was released from the hospital on December 16, four weeks after the injury, and his readiness for next year—and perhaps beyond—is in limbo. Just two weeks after Smith’s injury, backup Colt McCoy also broke his right leg. (At one point Smith and McCoy’s hospital rooms were next to each other.) The team was 6-3 with a healthy Smith under center; they fell to 1-5 since he suffered his injury, including the Texans loss.
Thirty-three-year-old Peterson, who has had shoulder and ankle injuries since October, has somehow been Washington’s healthiest running back. Second-round pick out of LSU Derrius Guice tore his ACL in August, Robert Kelley landed on IR with a toe injury in September, Chris Thompson suffered a rib injury in October that cost him multiple games, and running back Samaje Perine suffered knee and calf injuries that have kept him out since mid-November. If that wasn’t enough to hurt Washington’s running game, the team lost both starting guards Brandon Scherff (torn left pectoral) and Shawn Lauvao (torn ACL) to injured reserve after Week 9, then lost backup guard Jonathan Cooper for the season to a torn biceps after already losing reserve guard Arie Kouandjio to IR. The pass catchers were not spared, as Paul Richardson finished the year on injured reserve (AC Joint) and tight end Jordan Reed may join him with a toe injury after nearly finishing the first full season of his career.
Injuries alone don’t account for Washington’s collapse. After Saturday’s loss to the Tennessee Titans, Swearinger questioned defensive coordinator Greg Manusky for playing man defense against backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert instead of zone.
Washington’s negatives are also defined in part by what happened off the field. Washington claimed linebacker Reuben Foster off of waivers after he was arrested on one count of first-degree misdemeanor domestic violence battery at the hotel the 49ers were staying at before their Week 12 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The incident was the latest in a pattern of relationship violence, according to his ex-girlfriend. Foster was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list and has not played for Washington.
Washington is projected to have roughly $16.3 million in effective cap space this offseason, 25th in the league. So Washington will be squeezed in free agency, especially since they need to re-sign some players on the roster. The team traded a fourth-round pick for Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix before the trade deadline but has not yet reached a long-term extension with him. Pass rusher Preston Smith, Washington’s second-round pick in 2015, is also due to be a free agent, though he may get an offer elsewhere that Washington may not have the cap room to match.
Offense may be more challenging for Washington than defense. While their starting offensive line is all set to return, the majority of their reserve lineman are set to be free agents, including tackle Ty Nsekhe, Cooper, and Kouandjio. Based on the injuries to their starters the last few years, Washington may want those players to stick around. Even more pressing is that after the team committed $71 million guaranteed over four years to Alex Smith in March, Washington faces a strong chance that Smith won’t be able to play in Week 1. If the team isn’t confident in Colt McCoy to begin the season, they may emerge as a suitor for Teddy Bridgewater, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Josh McCown, or another quarterback who could steer the ship for the first half of the season.
If Preston Smith leaves in March, Washington could take another pass rusher in a draft class heavy on the defensive front seven (perhaps LSU’s Devin White or Boston College’s Zach Allen). But considering Washington has spent its last two first-round picks on defensive linemen, it may turn back to the offense. Receiver Paul Richardson was a bust in his first season in burgundy after coming over from Seattle, receiver Jamison Crowder has been inconsistent and injury-prone, and 2016 first-round pick Josh Doctson has been a slow bloomer. A wide receiver like Arizona State’s K’Neal Harry or Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown could give Washington a receiving option they currently lack. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see them take a quarterback at any point in the draft. Kirk Cousins was a fourth-rounder in 2012, and the team may make a similar investment in 2019 given Smith’s injury.