2020 NFL Preview: Flailing Washington gets another new start with Ron Rivera

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 5.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

(NOTE: This preview was published before Washington retired its longtime nickname. The story has been edited where possible to reflect the change.)

Washington probably didn’t deserve Ron Rivera.

Rivera is a good coach. He’s a two-time NFL Coach of the Year. He was a great representative for the Carolina Panthers. And his new team a mess.

There isn't enough time to go through the numerous negatives of the Washington job under owner Daniel Snyder (and anyway, we did it last year). But Rivera apparently likes a challenge.

“Nobody really knows, but I’ll say this: I believe in me, and I will bet on me,” Rivera said at his introductory news conference, via the Washington Post. “We’ll see what happens. That’s all I can tell you. I will give you one thing: I will work. I will work very hard. I will do the things that I believe, and I will stay true to who I am.”

If there’s any hope that the Rivera era will be different, it’s that Snyder finally seems to realize he can't meddle anymore if he expects his franchise to ever win anything. He said the team will have “one voice and one voice alone,” and it belongs to his head coach.

“What (Washington) have needed is a culture change,” Snyder said at Rivera's introductory news conference. “Someone that can bring a winning culture to our organization. That starts and ends with our head coach.”

We’ll see. Snyder has been screwing up his team for more than 20 years; it’s hard to see him being hands off now. But for now Rivera has total control. And a lot of work to do.

Washington got lucky when the New York Giants beat them late in the season, ensuring Washington would get the second overall pick of the draft. They took Ohio State defensive end Chase Young. The moment the pick was made, Young might have become the team’s biggest star. That says something about Young’s talent, but also something about Washington’s roster.

Dwayne Haskins Jr. is an unknown at quarterback, though he had promising moments late in the season. Terry McLaurin had a fine rookie season at receiver, and he could have a bright future. The defensive line is a strength. It’s not like there are many sure things during the rebuild.

The first year, maybe two, will be spent figuring out who fits in Rivera’s culture and who is good enough to play at an above average level. They need Young to hit. It would be nice if Haskins showed why he was a first-round pick a year ago. Given the years of poor decisions, bad publicity and general malaise among the fan base, Washington needs something to go right.

Rivera is a good start. His ties to the military (Rivera lived in multiple military bases growing up as the son of an Army veteran) has served him well as a head coach. He’s a natural leader. His success with the Panthers, which included a 15-1 season and a Super Bowl appearance in 2015, provides hope. Washington’s job should have been toxic given the roster and the ownership situation, and landing Rivera is as good as the franchise could have done.

Washington is a lost team, one that was once among the NFL’s best but has won only one playoff game since the 1999 season. It will take a long time for Rivera to fix all of the problems. The Trent Williams debacle — Washington had an offer for a first-round pick last year and somehow didn’t trade the unhappy tackle, then Rivera had to settle for a 2020 fifth-round pick and a 2021 third-round pick in April — illustrates all of the previous incompetence Rivera has to unwind.

Hopefully, Snyder has some patience this time. He'll need it.

Ron Rivera was hired to be Washington's new head coach this offseason. (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Ron Rivera was hired to be Washington's new head coach this offseason. (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Ron Rivera was hired to be Washington's new head coach this offseason. (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Ron Rivera was hired to be Washington's new head coach this offseason. (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Grabbing Chase Young was the highlight, but Washington had an overall draft that could pay off. Playmaking running back/receiver Antonio Gibson is a rookie to watch. Cornerback Kendall Fuller was the big free-agent addition, and Washington needed someone to play corner. The biggest loss was offensive tackle Trent Williams, who was traded to the San Francisco 49ers, but it’s not like there was much hope of him playing for Washington again. Maybe the best thing to be said about Washington’s offseason is they didn’t overspend in an ill-advised attempt to fix everything right away.


Dwayne Haskins Jr. is a good example of the impatience for quarterbacks in this era. He started seven games. Yet, it seems everyone has decided he can’t be a top-tier QB. If Haskins is going to make it, he needs to become a more accurate passer. He was dead last among qualified quarterbacks in Pro Football Focus’ adjusted completion percentage. He had, by far, the worst accuracy of any NFL quarterback on short throws (from 0-9 yards). On a positive note, he played well when he had to improvise, and he also avoided turnovers for the most part. In his final two games, he posted a 131.3 passer rating on 43 throws, which isn’t much of a sample but at least it was encouraging. In a long rebuilding process, Washington has the time to be patient with Haskins.

Washington’s over/under win total at BetMGM is 5. The under is +105, meaning a bettor would have to risk $100 to win $105. Ron Rivera is a good coach and five wins isn’t much, but Washington is talent-poor and has a tough schedule. You’d have to be optimistic to take the over.

It’s Chase Young, and by a mile. It can be argued Washington’s last star was Robert Griffin III, and that was in 2012 and lasted one season. Young could be the type of foundational player to enliven the fan base and start a new era. At his best, Young is unblockable. Pass rushers sometimes take time to adjust to the NFL, and maybe that will happen with Young, too, but he’s the favorite for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Washington needs something to go right, starting here.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “It’s a golden age for young receivers; the 2019 rookie class was a seismic hit, and more talent is on the way with the 2020 first-years. With all this fresh talent taking over the league, Terry McLaurin’s potential might be an eyelash under the radar.

“Let’s make sure we don’t play a straw man here — everyone knows McLaurin is a special player. A rookie wideout who logs a 58-919-7 line grabs your attention, and McLaurin deserves extra credit for excelling despite a horrible Washington supporting cast. We can’t be sure the quarterback play will be any better this year, but it would be hard for it to be worse. And perhaps the hiring of offensive coordinator Scott Turner can be a plus.

“Turner was Carolina’s quarterback coach the last two years, and he worked with his father, Norv, last year [the elder Turner was the team’s OC]. The Panthers featured one of the narrowest usage trees in 2019, and Papa Turner has generally preferred that angle; he likes to identify a short list of key players, then rely heavily on those guys. Let’s bet the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, and that allows McLaurin to scoop up anywhere from 20-40 additional targets this year. He’s set up to smash his current Yahoo ADP, which modestly slots him as the WR28.”

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If you want to know how irrelevant Washington has become, it won’t appear on prime time for the first time since 1982. They appear on Thanksgiving, which appeases the NFL’s goal of getting each team a prime-time game. Washington’s exclusion from any night games is especially telling because the NFL bends backward to get NFC East teams on prime time because of the large fan bases and huge markets. Washington needs to improve before they get that prime-time shine again.

Who can Washington’s offense feature other than Terry McLaurin?

It’s not like Haskins has much to work with. McLaurin was very good as a rookie last season. According to Pro Football Focus, McLaurin’s grade was fifth-best among all NFL receivers with at least 90 targets. Three receivers who ranked below McLaurin were Mike Evans, Davante Adams and Amari Cooper. McLaurin was that good in 2019.

Other than McLaurin? Washington’s other receivers will be some combination of Cody Latimer, Steven Sims, Kelvin Harmon, Trey Quinn … excited yet? The tight end will likely be Richard Rodgers or Jeremy Sprinkle. At running back, Adrian Peterson and Derrius Guice are around, but Peterson is 35 and Guice can’t stay healthy. Maybe versatile rookie Antonio Gibson can have an impact. He doesn’t have much competition for touches. To add to the offensive issues, Washington has only one sure thing on the line: guard Brandon Scherff, who got the franchise tag.

Maybe Washington can take a step forward. Ron Rivera is a good coach. Dwayne Haskins Jr. might be better than he’s given credit for. If Washington can feel good about Haskins after the season, that’s a win. There won’t be many actual wins on the field this season.

By the end of the year, Washington should know if Dwayne Haskins Jr. is the answer, and if he’s not then the quarterback search starts over again. Washington fans have been living the nightmare scenario for a while. It’s hard to see it getting that much worse. Even another horrendous season should result in a very good draft pick and a restart with an exciting quarterback prospect.

It’s not crazy to think Washington could head into the 2021 season with Chase Young and Trevor Lawrence on the roster. That would energize a moribund franchise. This season won’t be good. Washington needs multiple offseasons to build up the roster. It’ll be a long year for Washington fans, but that’s nothing unusual. Washington should be one of the few teams in play for the No. 1 overall pick. At least a big-time quarterback prospect — or a big step forward for Dwayne Haskins Jr. — would put Washington back on the NFL map.

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