- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 30, 2020

ASHBURN — When Ron Rivera spoke to his players at practice Wednesday, the topic of recently-departed quarterback Dwayne Haskins didn’t come up, the Washington coach said.

Why would it? Haskins is the past and Sunday’s do-or-die game in Philadelphia against the Eagles is the future. Rivera, who unceremoniously cut the former starter and 2019 first-rounder on Monday, is all about what comes next.

The Washington Football Team’s playoff hopes, of course, will come down to the last game of the regular season — set for an 8:20 p.m. kickoff on “Sunday Night Football.”

Ironically, the matchup will be Washington’s first prime-time outing of the season. Washington beat then-undefeated Pittsburgh in a nationally-televised afternoon contest a few weeks ago, and pounded Dallas in a Thanksgiving-afternoon tilt, but was set to miss out entirely on evening games for the first time since 1982 before the NFL flexed the season-ender into the Sunday night showcase.

Rivera has talked all year about making the franchise relevant again. His players have a chance to finally do that with a win.

“We’re on the stage now,” Rivera said. “The one thing I will say, the first other two games we’ve been on the stage — the Pittsburgh game and the Dallas game — our guys came out and played well and had fun. That’s the biggest thing. We’ve got to get back to having a little bit of fun.

“The truth of the matter is we’re playing with house money. That’s the best part about it. Nobody expected us to be here.”

But before any of that, Washington will need to settle its quarterback position. The team is optimistic that Alex Smith can return this week from a calf injury, but the 36-year-old didn’t practice Wednesday. If Smith can’t play, that leaves Taylor Heinicke — a 27-year-old journeyman who was out of the NFL and preparing for finals at Old Dominion before joining Washington earlier this month.

Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner were impressed with Heinicke’s performance in Sunday’s loss to the Carolina Panthers. After replacing Haskins in the fourth, Heinicke completed 12 of 19 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown.

Turner said Heinicke processes information well and “turns it loose” when given the chance.

Sunday was just Heinicke’s eighth appearance in the NFL. An undrafted free agent in 2015, Heinicke spent stints as a backup with Minnesota, New England, Houston and yes, Carolina. Washington signed Heinicke due to his knowledge of the Turner offense and had planned to make him a “quarantine quarterback” who would only see the field if all the other signal-callers were shelved because of COVID-19.

As for Haskins, Rivera said Monday’s release was best for the franchise. Cutting Haskins was the latest example of Rivera partying ways with a high-profile player to send a message. In less than a year, Haskins has traded Trent Williams, Quinton Dunbar and cut Derrius Guice and Haskins — all key remnants of the old Washington regime.

Haskins’ departure was particularly noteworthy given it came less than two full years into the quarterback’s career and after a series of off-the-field controversies, including last week’s partying-in-public-without-a-mask incident.

“It really shows the guys on this team that the coaching staff is really about winning,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “Nobody is above the football team. … If you have a first-round pick that can be released after two years, then anybody is susceptible to be released at any point. You have to make sure you’re always doing the right things, always doing what’s asked of you.”

Smith said Washington must move on quickly after Haskins’ release, adding he wished Haskins well. Running back J.D. McKissic echoed a similar message.

In Haskins, Rivera released a player seen as a handpicked favorite of owner Dan Snyder. Rivera, though, said Snyder was informed of the decision and had no problems with it.

“More so than anything else, Mr. Snyder (is) supportive,” Rivera said. “He understands there are things that need to be done. And he’s supportive of that. That’s the best part of that. We’ll just continue to make decisions in the best interest of our football team going forward.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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