- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 20, 2020

Washington coach Ron Rivera likes to temper expectations for his offense. For the second straight week, it was evident why. Facing the Arizona Cardinals, quarterback Dwayne Haskins occasionally rushed his throws. The offensive line was bullied. Receivers, tight ends and running backs all dropped passes that were within reach.

It’s not that Rivera doesn’t have high standards — he does. The coach just understands the reality for a unit that ranked among the league’s worst last season: Washington needs time to get better.

Along the way, there’s bound to be frustration. So when Kyler Murray and the Cardinals stormed out to a double-digit lead, Washington didn’t have the firepower to keep up — losing 30-15 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.  Washington fell to 1-1 on the season.

“This is a great learning experience,” Rivera said, “because we played two teams today. We played them and ourselves.”

This is what a work-in-progress offense looks like: 316 yards total yards, 199 team passing yards, 117 rushing yards, two touchdowns, four sacks, six punts.  

There were positives and negatives in those numbers.  Haskins found his rhythm in the second half, hitting Terry McLaurin (seven catches, 125 yards) and other receivers as the game went along. Third-round running back Antiono Gibson also flashed, rushing for his first career touchdown. But the offensive line was outmatched against a disruptive Arizona front. 

It was hard not to compare Haskins’ performance with Kyler Murray. Both products of the 2019 draft class, Murray dazzled with 286 passing and 67 rushing yards. He picked apart Washington’s defense, helping Arizona get out to a 20-0 lead. Murray, an electric dual-threat quarterback, threw for one touchdown and ran for more. 

Muray, though, is surrounded by playmakers that Washington does not have. Murray relied upon All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins and future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald. He also had reliable deep targets in Andy Isabella and Christian Kirk. 

Washington’s offensive playmakers are far from finished products. Last week, Rivera said he was concerned about the team’s youth at wide receiver, and on Sunday, no one stepped up early for Washington. 

Washington entered the afternoon contest with abundant optimism. So much had gone right for the team a week ago in its win over the Philadelphia Eagles, and on Sunday, it appeared things were again trending Washington’s way — without even having played.

In the early window of games, Washington’s NFC East rivals all looked hopeless. The Los Angeles Rams knocked off the Philadelphia Eagles. The New York Giants, losing star Saquon Barkley to a torn ACL, couldn’t complete their comeback against the Chicago Bears. And when Washington finally kicked off, the Dallas Cowboys looked like they were going to suffer an embarrassing loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

But Washington’s hopes quickly faded. Its offense unraveled early — going three-and-out on the opening drive, a series that would set the tone for much of the day. As Washington’s failure to create any momentum got underway, the Cowboys also pulled out a remarkable 40-39 comeback win.

Unlike last week in its win over Philadelphia, Washington couldn’t capitalize on generating turnovers. In the first quarter, Murray made a rare mistake — throwing an interception to safety Landon Collins and giving Washington great field position at Arizona’s 19-yard line. But just three plays later, Arizona’s line plowed through Washington’s front and pass-rusher Chandler Jones stripped Haskins on the sack at the 9-yard line. 

Washington didn’t score a touchdown until the second half — making it the second straight slow start for Haskins. 

“Right now, it sure doesn’t look good, but I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing and that’s been working,” said Haskins, who threw 223 yards on 19 of 33 passing. “So I’m trying to get the guys on the same page and understanding a new offense, a new scheme and basically a whole new team under 25 on offense, it’s a whole building process.”

Haskins said that during the game, he had a conversation with McLaurin to determine how to get him open. Arizona, he said, surprised Washington by playing more man-to-man coverage than the Cover 3 and Cover 4 looks it anticipated.

The conversation paid dividends, resulting in a 10-yard touchdown to McLaurin in the fourth, trailing 27-9. Haskins played much better in the second half as he got the ball out quickly, stepped up to make throws and accurately placed balls in the hands of his targets. Washington’s second touchdown — Gibson’s run — was set up by a 30-yard dime to slot receiver Steven Sims.

Washington cut the deficit to 12 with 6:38 left, but couldn’t make the needed stop as the Cardinals drove into field goal range. In an odd decision, Rivera elected to not use any of his three timeouts under two minutes, leaving Zane Gonzalez to hit a 28-yarder with 26 seconds left.

Rivera defended the decision after the loss. He said he wasn’t going to “expose” his players to further injury. Washington suffered a crucial injury earlier in the contest when Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Scherff went out with a knee injury and did not return. 

“These are growing pains, guys,” Rivera said. “We won a game last week. Everyone’s excited. I was excited. I was enthusiastic. I think we have a good football team, but we’ve just got a lot to learn. We’re a young team. That’s just the way it is. That’s the truth of the matter.”  

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