ASHBURN — If offensive coordinator Scott Turner seems more confident this year, if there’s a little more “swagger in his walk” as coach Ron Rivera suggests, perhaps it can be traced back to the team’s offseason.
After finishing as the league’s least-efficient offense in 2020, Washington revamped the unit over the course of free agency and the draft — giving Turner a new quarterback (Ryan Fitzpatrick), additional speed threats (Curtis Samuel, Dyami Brown) and a remade offensive line (Charles Leno, Ereck Flowers, Sam Cosmi), for good measure. The overhaul has left Rivera noticing a “more comfortable” Turner entering their second season in Washington.
“I thought I had swagger last year too,” Turner said with a smile. “I guess I didn’t.”
When Washington‘s season opens Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, Turner will get a chance to show how much difference a few shiny new toys can make.
This was an offense, after all, was in badly need of a makeover. Pick a stat, any offensive stat from 2020, and you’ll find Washington ranked near the bottom of the league: 25th in points per game (20.8), 30th in total yards (5,076), 24th in third-down percentage (39.1%), 27th in the percentage of drives that resulted in a score (33.3%) and so on.
But for Rivera and his coaches, there was one missing element in particular that stood out. Something that the NFL’s most lethal offenses have that the Washington Football Team lacked. Explosive, stretch-the-field plays.
In the NFL, an explosive play is generally defined as a completion of at least 16 yards or rushes that gain 12 or more yards. According to SportsRadar, Washington had just 94 plays (63 passing, 31 rushing) that qualified — 29th in the league.
With the offseason upgrades, Washington expects those numbers to be much better this year.
“One of the things that we were missing (in 2020) was the opportunity to have three or four guys on the field that could potentially go the distance,” Rivera said. “You know, we may have had two guys at a time. But now we have a potential to put three or four guys out on the field that have the ability to go the distance every time they touch it.
“So this is pretty exciting as far as what we can be on offense.”
The additions of speedsters Samuel and Brown should open up the field. Defenses will have to account for the threats on the edges, even if the ball goes inside.
Washington, too, still has third-year-man Terry McLaurin — another deep threat who can torch opposing corners.
Last year, he was used much more in the middle of the field under Turner than his rookie year under former coach Jay Gruden. But with Samuel’s versatility, Washington should have the option to effectively use McLaurin in multiple ways.
And the team will finally have a quarterback willing to air it out. Fitzpatrick is a veteran known for slinging it down the field — sometimes even to the detriment of his team.
Coming off a season with the Miami Dolphins, Fitzpatrick averaged more air yards — the distance the ball travels in the air en route to the receiver — per attempt (7.8) than Washington’s starters in Alex Smith (5.1), Dwayne Haskins (6.7) and Kyle Allen (6.0). Taylor Heinicke, Washington’s fourth quarterback, averaged 13.1 air yards per throw, but that was an extremely small sample size of one game that came when Haskins was benched midgame.
Interestingly enough, according to Sports Info Solutions, Smith actually attempted more throws that traveled beyond 20 yards per game (3.1 to 2.2) than Fitzpatrick, but some of that could be scheme — or the lack of weapons available in Miami. According to Football Outsiders, the Dolphins faced more man-to-man coverage than any other team in the league. The implication there is that opposing defenses basically dared Miami’s receivers to beat them.
Fitzpatrick will likely have more freedom to let it rip for Washington. The team already saw glimpses of that in the preseason, when the quarterback found tight end Logan Thomas and McLaurin for gains of 20+ yards.
Elsewhere, Turner’s scheme should create more opportunities as the play-caller loves to use pre-snap motion to help create one-on-one mismatches.
Samuel’s presence figures to be vital for that. The 25-year-old can line up in the slot, on the outside and even in the backfield. Turner used Samuel often as a deep threat when the pair were together in Carolina, though Samuel was used more in the middle last year when the Panthers hired offensive coordinator Joe Brady.
“The great thing is it’s hard for teams to really dictate and figure out what I’m going to do,” Samuel said. “The best thing about my skill set and my abilities is I can do a lot.”
Turner said ideally, all five skill position players on the field should be an option to make plays.
Washington may finally have that as defenses will have to account for burners in McLaurin and Samuel, a large tight end in Thomas, a crafty slot receiver in Adam Humphries and a reliable pass-catching running back in Antonio Gibson (or J.D. McKissic).
“You want everyone to be a threat,” Turner said. “That’s what we’re working towards. I feel like we’re getting closer to that.”