- The Washington Times - Monday, December 13, 2021

The Washington Football Team is not the most injured team in the NFL. Not by the pure number of players on injured reserve. Or by other metrics, such as the ones that account for the salaries of the sidelined players. 

But lately, even coach Ron Rivera has wondered how much more his team can take.

“I wouldn’t say it’s insurmountable,” Rivera said Monday, “but it most certainly will test your depth more so than anything else.” 

A day after Sunday’s 27-20 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Rivera and Co. were forced to deal with the aftermath of another punishing, physical outing. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke came into the facility a “little sore” after suffering knee and elbow injuries and needs further evaluation, Rivera said. Wide receiver Terry McLaurin is in concussion protocol, while starting center Tyler Larsen is waiting for an MRI on an Achilles injury.

For all the talk of the “next man up” — a beloved sports cliche by athletes and coaches — Washington has reached a point in which the team’s mounting injuries have started to take a toll. Currently, Washington has 15 players on injured reserve — 10 of whom have started at least a game this season. That doesn’t include those who are now dealing with new ailments like McLaurin and Heinicke, or the others who missed this past weekend’s loss like running back J.D. McKissic (concussion).

And Washington’s troubles extend beyond injuries. The team is dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. On Monday, defensive tackle Jonathan Allen was one of four players who were placed on the league’s COVID-19 reserve list. The other three who joined Allen are linebacker David Mayo, defensive end William Bradley-King and tight end Temarrick Hemingway. 

The team now has added nine players — all but one of whom are defenders — to the list since last week. Two of those players, Montez Sweat and Khaleke Hudson, were already on injured reserve. 

With the playoffs approaching, Washington’s health over the final four games of the season could be a determining factor in whether the team can reach the postseason.

Rivera often praises how his team has responded to the injuries, telling reporters that it’s a testament to the added depth on the roster. But after watching tape, Rivera said he occasionally notices the lack of experience of those filling in. 

“You can see the guys that are playing have limited experience and sometimes those mistakes pop up,” Rivera said. “Those are things that you can only learn through experience and guys have to understand that when you get that opportunity, you gotta take advantage, you gotta be ready to take advantage it. … They need to get experience. They need to understand what it takes.”

Of Monday’s news, Allen’s placement on the list is arguably the most notable. Unless the defensive tackle can test negative twice within 24 hours apart, Allen, who is vaccinated, will miss next Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Allen has been Washington’s most consistent player this season, leading the defense in sacks (7½), pressures, quarterback hits and tackles for loss.

But other positions are already being tested. Even if Heinicke plays Sunday, he’ll likely take snaps from Keith Ismael — the team’s fourth-string center. Rivera admitted the offensive line is a “concern” because of injuries. Tackle Cornelius Lucas is filling in for Sam Cosmi (ankle) and Charles Leno missed a few snaps in Sunday’s game with a back injury. Rivera, though, said Leno is “fine” a day later.

Defensive end is also a big question mark. After Casey Toohill and James Smith-Williams were added to the COVID-19 list over the weekend, Shaka Toney and Daniel Wise filled in. It’s unclear whether Toohill, Smith-Williams or Sweat will be able to be cleared in time for the Eagles game. Sweat, in particular, hasn’t practiced in a month because of a broken jaw and won’t be eligible to come off the list until Saturday. 

The steady drumbeat of injuries has been compounded by the absence of Ryan Vermillion, Washington‘s lead trainer. He hasn’t been with the team since October because of an ongoing federal investigation.

Rivera said Monday that he was “hopeful” Vermillion would be able to rejoin the team at some point. But Rivera did not have a timetable for that to happen as the investigation remains open.

In Vermillion’s absence, the team has had assistant trainer Mark McCracken assume the lead role and has brought back former interns for additional help.

“We’ve had a full training staff and they’ve been doing a pretty good job,” Rivera said. “You just can’t account for the injuries that we’ve had. We’ve had several guys in the concussion protocol. You can’t account for that. … There are some things that are beyond our control, no matter how many people you have in your training staff.”

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

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