- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 20, 2020

LANDOVER — Dwayne Haskins said he just wanted to have fun.

Named the starter Friday for an injured Alex Smith, the Washington quarterback told reporters he wasn’t concerned that Sunday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks amounted to an unexpected chance to revitalize his young career.

Instead, the 23-year-old said he just wanted to enjoy the position that he’s played since childhood.

“It’s supposed to be about playing football, he said, “It’s supposed to be fun.”

But after Sunday’s 20-15 loss to the Seahawks, Haskins didn’t look — or sound — like a man who had fun. He let out a deep sigh as sat down for his postgame press conference after leading a fourth-quarter rally that came up short.

“Man, I thought we had them at the end,” Haskins said.

Making his first start since Week 4, the quarterback was uneven in many of the same areas that led coach Ron Rivera to bench him earlier in the season. Yes, Haskins threw for 295 yards and gave Washington a shot to upset the Seahawks. But his two interceptions created an early hole, and his inconsistency from play to play prevented Washington from forging an upset.

Haskins threw a season-high 55 times, and while there were flashes of NFL-level playmaking ability, there were also cringe-worthy moments. Throws sailed over receivers’ heads and positive plays were too-often offset by drive-killing mistakes.

On Washington’s final drive, when a touchdown could have given the team a late lead, Haskins took back-to-back sacks on second and third down. He wasn’t helped by a hobbled Morgan Moses (leg), but the loss of yardage put the team in a near-impossible fourth-and-24. Haskins chucked up a deep pass down that field that ended in an incompletion.

The loss drops Washington to 6-8 on the year and snaps a four-game winning streak. Hopes for a division title are still alive with two games left, but Washington missed an opportunity to seize control of the NFC East.

The team’s playoff chances may very well rest on Smith’s calf, which kept him out against the Seahawks. Washington desperately needs Smith to be healthy for the final stretch. Rivera said Smith would start next week against the Carolina Panthers, if healthy.

“We’ve got two games left still, and we’re right in the middle of everything,” Rivera said. “Did we want to win this one? Absolutely. But we’ve got two more games.”

Haskins on Friday downplayed the significance of getting back on the field, but Sunday represented an unexpected opportunity for the second-year signal-caller, benched earlier this season, to show how much he had grown.

Leading up to the game, coaches and teammates said Haskins had taken the demotion constructively. The quarterback, they said, worked on his practice habits. Haskins arranged workouts outside the facility and closely studied Smith to see how the veteran prepared for a game. Rivera had previously indicated that Haskins needed to “put it all together” in terms of talent and work ethic.

Washington, too, hoped to make life easier for Haskins with a game plan tailored to his strengths. That meant more screen plays and short throws aimed at getting the ball out early. The team also gave Haskins a wristband with plays on it to help his verbiage in the huddle.

But for all the talk of progress, Haskins’ flaws were still glaring. A common knock on Haskins, for example, has been that for every positive play a negative play seems to follow.

That was never more apparent than during a sequence in the third quarter when Haskins hit wideout Terry McLaurin for a 30-yard gain — only to immediately throw an interception on the next play. On the turnover, Haskins failed to see Seahawks cornerback D.J. Reed, who stole a deep shot intended for Cam Sims.

The interception was Haskins’ second of the day. His first happened when a scrambling Haskins overthrew Isaiah Wright, leading to a tipped pass that was hauled in by Shaquill Griffin.

Still, there were moments, especially in the second half, when Haskins resembled the talented, mesmerizing prospect taken 15th overall in 2019. He led Washington on a 14-play, 96-yard drive, capped off with a Peyton Barber touchdown run that made it 20-9.

Then in the fourth quarter, he helped Washington capitalize on a short field after pass-rusher Montez Sweat tipped a Russell Wilson pass that was intercepted by defensive tackle Daron Payne. Haskins marched Washington down the field, rolling out to hit running back J.D. McKissic for a 4-yard touchdown.

What changed? Haskins said he “got mad” after his second interception, which helped him play better. Rivera said Haskins started to let plays further develop, letting wide receivers get into their routes. 

Tight end Logan Thomas had 13 catches for 101 yards, but McLaurin and McKissic each had nine and seven receptions respectively. Eight players, in total, recorded a catch.

“Going down the hole we did, (Haskins) could have shut it down but he didn’t,” Thomas said. “He kept battling and gave us a chance to win this thing.”

With 5:34 left, Washington got the ball back at its own 14-yard line thanks to a three-and-out from the defense. The latter was solid again Sunday, holding the Seahawks to only 302 yards — well below their season average of 387.5.

Haskins remained patient. Over the next few minutes, the quarterback completed six passes for 42 yards and got Washington to Seattle’s 23-yard line.

The comeback bid, though, came up short.

As Haskins walked off the field, looking down at the ground, rookie Chase Young tapped him on the shoulder to lift his head up. Together, they jogged back to the locker room. Redemption for Haskins’ troubled career as an NFL starter would have to wait.

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