LANDOVER, Md. — It’s hard to be both leading the division and jockeying for a top-5 draft pick, but the Washington Football Team is finding a way.
The NFL’s most fascinating terrible team was at it again on Sunday, losing to Baltimore 31-17 in a game that offered no suspense but somehow still provided thrills until the final minute, when Ravens garbage-time QB Robert Griffin III was sacked while throwing an interception.
Washington had a number of standout performances, including a breakout game for Antonio Gibson (128 total yards), another big outing by Terry McLaurin (118 yards), and two interceptions from Kendall Fuller in his second start of the season.
There were also a handful of head-scratching clock management decisions, as has become customary in the Ron Rivera era. The coach opted to play for a field goal at the end of the first half despite having 23 seconds, a timeout, and a first down on the Baltimore 25-yard line.
When the dust settled, Washington dropped to 1-3 this season, a 4-win pace reflective of the warnings Rivera gave all offseason — that this would be a rebuilding year and the team would be a work in progress for most of it.
And yet, another loss by the Dallas Cowboys left Washington with a share of first place in the NFC East, pending Philadelphia’s outcome on Sunday night.
There’s a legitimate argument to be made that Washington is capable of taking the division on the strength of its defense alone, and a playoff spot is a terrible thing to waste, even if it would come with the biggest asterisk since Barry Bonds was smashing home runs.
And that’s where the quarterback comes in.
The game was framed as a referendum on Dwayne Haskins after an abysmal outing in Cleveland, and the numbers supported that he made a step forward — 32 of 45 for 314 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions.
But his day was loosely based on the children’s story “Amelia Bedelia,” in which a well-meaning housekeeper takes everything literally, leading to head-scratching disaster.
All week offensive coordinator Scott Turner had been emphasizing to Haskins that he needed to not force big plays, to take a small gain when that presented itself, and keep things moving.
He did that, leading drives of 9, 10 and 17 plays as the team marched down the field one checkdown at a time.
Then came fourth-and-goal from the Baltimore 13-yard line. Rivera opted to leave Haskins on the field.
“I wanted to see what would happen,” Rivera said. “I really did.”
What happened was that Baltimore ran a zone defense designed to keep the ball from getting thrown into the end zone. Seeing that, Haskins opted for a short pass to Isaiah Wright, who was tackled to end the series.
Haskins, who was not in the room for Rivera’s postgame press conference, was asked if he knew the coach was testing him.
“I had no idea,” Haskins said. “I hope I passed it.”
Rivera: “It was fourth down. The ball’s got to go into the end zone. Or it’s got to be put in a position where it can get into the end zone. So, again, it’s something he’s got to learn.
“If he’s going to be a starter in this league and contribute to winning football games, he has to understand and develop — this is part of it. This is part of the growth. We didn’t have the opportunity this offseason to work through all these scenarios and situations. It’s just kind of ‘learn as you go.’”
Haskins is also at a disadvantage from having played one season of college football, on an Ohio State team that was so dominant it rarely had anything resembling a game management dilemma.
Much like the wave of high school players who invaded the NBA in the early 2000’s, Haskins appears to be learning how much he has to learn.
If Rivera decides Washington’s defense is ready to take a shot at the NFC East, the best path to get there would be with a different quarterback.
But Rivera isn’t interested in hanging divisional banners, and walking away from Haskins wouldn’t get the team any closer to a Super Bowl. As is his style, Rivera insisted on a review of the game tape Monday before making any judgments about his quarterback, though a switch feels extremely unlikely.
That leaves Football Team fans watching and scratching their heads each week at a team that is often struggling, but rarely boring.