Washington's regression in 2021 leaves questions about direction of franchise

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There are a dozen ways to spin this 7-10 season, which culminated on Sunday with an empty-calorie win over the New York Giants but with the Washington Football Team's season still over.

The most optimistic view, perhaps, is that Washington overperformed in year one under head coach Ron Rivera, leaving fans with unrealistic expectations heading into the second year of a long-term rebuild. From that perspective, finishing year two — the NFL's first 17-game season — only one loss worse than the season prior isn't the worst of outcomes, even if Washington's 7-9 mark in 2020 resulted in a one-and-done playoff appearance and this one did not.

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But that view leaves open questions that are difficult to reconcile with the bigger picture, that Washington should be trending in the right direction in its rebuild. It doesn't answer why the defense, which was supposed to be the lifeblood of the rebuild, was a major letdown for much of the 2021 season. Why Chase Young, who was selected second overall when Washington just as easily could have drafted a quarterback in 2020, appeared to show serious regression before being lost for the season in Week 10.

If Rivera intended to build up a defense so strong that it could account for the offense not having competent quarterback play, as he implied was the case last offseason, then why did Washington's defense just finish 22nd in yards (359.3) and 25th in points (25.5) per game, categories in which it ranked second and fourth, respectively, a season ago?

Washington crumbled when it mattered most, closing out its season 1-4 against divisional opponents, despite ending on a high note with Sunday's 22-7 victory over the Giants. In total, Washington was 2-4 in the NFC East, sweeping the season series against the Giants while getting blanked by the Cowboys and Eagles, both playoff teams.

There are other factors to account for, especially that Washington was decimated by Covid at a critical point in its season, when it was 6-7 with a legitimate shot at making the playoffs heading into its final four games of the season, all against NFC East opponents. Yes, the timing could have been better. But that's just excuse-making, considering 31 other teams had to manage their way through the same health crisis.

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What's confounding about this conclusion to the season is how, after least season, it clearly felt like Washington was heading in the right direction, and now, even with a very similar season outcome, the status quo is subject to question. It's without question that had Rivera led Washington to two winning seasons in his first two years, they'd both be viewed as net positives and no one would be questioning the direction of the franchise.

But a meh season followed by an even more meh season adds up to what, exactly?

It feels unshakably like more of the same, which is precisely not what Rivera was hired to bring to Washington with his culture change directive. Even Jay Gruden was able to deliver a 9-7 outcome by his second season. Currently Rivera has Jim Zorn and Steve Spurrier beat by two wins apiece.

With all that in mind, it seems entirely fair to expect a big leap forward from Washington next season. Making the playoffs is the bar.

Anything short of that, one has to wonder which direction the franchise should consider going in next.

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