A 2-5 record doesn’t have quite the same mystique in the District and its environs as the 19-31 mark the Washington Nationals famously held in 2019 when they began digging themselves out of a hole on their way to a title.
But 2-5 is where the Washington Football Team sat last season before going on a run that put them in the playoffs, and so that same 2-5 mark — where the 2021 Washington Football Team finds itself again, a year later — will have to do.
Two and five means hope remains. Two and five means stay in the fight. Great things can still happen at 2-5 — just see last year.
But while the standings show Washington exactly where it was a year ago, it doesn’t take much to see that the circumstances are vastly different — and darker — this time at 2-5.
While players and coaches left Sunday’s 24-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers optimistic — “We’re so close,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said — Washington’s defense has hardly shown it is on the verge of a breakout in the ways the unit did in 2020. Last year’s group, at least, ranked in the top 10 of multiple defensive categories before outright dominating teams down the stretch of its 7-9 finish.
That’s not the case now.
And more importantly, when Washington was struggling last year, the NFC East was still wide open. The Philadelphia Eagles, at the time, led the division at 2-4 through Week 7. This year? The Dallas Cowboys are 5-1 — 3½ games up over Washington.
Washington closes the season with five straight division games — facing Dallas twice — but the Cowboys would have to suffer a major collapse.
If not, the third wild card spot could be Washington‘s best chance to make the postseason. However, the 3-3 Minnesota Vikings hold a two-game lead over Washington.
“We still have 10 games to play, obviously, and anything can happen if you take them one at a time,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said. “What I’m hoping for and looking for is for us to start playing consistent football, better football. I get it.
“I know the expectations were high coming into this year. The truth of the matter is we haven’t lived up to those.”
That “one at a time” mentality — the cliche of all sports cliches — starts for Washington this week, when the team plays the Denver Broncos. Despite every game having meaning, Sunday will be particularly important for Washington for a few reasons.
The Broncos, having lost four straight, are in a vulnerable position with an inconsistent quarterback and a shaky defense — making them one of the “easier” opponents on Washington’s schedule. Beyond that, this is Washington’s last game before the bye and Rivera said a win could “really set the tone” for the rest of the season. In 2020, Washington beat the Cowboys before its bye week and went 5-4 afterward.
But if a turnaround is really going to happen for Washington, the team’s defense will obviously need to improve. Through seven games, Washington is allowing opponents to score on 50.7% of its drives — the second-highest rate in the NFL. A year ago, through seven games, teams scored points against Washington’s defense just 36.7% of the time.
Washington’s defensive jump over the last half in 2020 can be traced back to the team cutting down on the number of points allowed. The defense ranked 16th after Week 7 — giving up 23.5 points per game — and climbed to fourth (20.5) by season’s end.
This year, Washington is allowing 30 points per game — most in the league.
“It kind of reminds me of last season, it really does,” defensive backs coach Chris Harris said. “Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, well, this is (the) second year in the defense.’ It’s my second year in the defense, but there’s five brand new defensive backs in the back end. I’m not making an excuse.
“I’m never a guy that makes an excuse, but it’s very similar to last season.”
Compared to a year ago, Washington is much better offensively. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke has helped the offense score on 37.8 % of its drives, up from 30% in 2020. That still only ranks 18th, but the unit has been functional even amid injuries to important players (Brandon Scherff, Curtis Samuel).
Still, Washington was built around its defense. According to Over the Cap, the Burgundy and Gold are spending $89 million on their defense in 2021 — the seventh-highest cap hit in the NFL. The team put serious resources into the unit on the assumption that it would continue to win games for them.
“As a unit, we just have to understand that — especially after what we went through last year — the season’s not done,” said Allen, who had two sacks against the Packers. “We have to turn things around. We have to circle the wagons, not worried about the outside noise, the outside media, but focus on what we have to do to finish games and make those plays that winning teams make.”