The three turning points of Ron Rivera's second season with Washington

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  • Washington Football Team
    Washington Football Team
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  • Ryan Fitzpatrick
    Ryan Fitzpatrick
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  • Taylor Heinicke
    Taylor Heinicke
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The three turning points of Rivera's second year in Washington originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

With Ron Rivera's second season in Washington now officially over, Pete Hailey outlines the three points on the schedule that defined the campaign.

1) Ryan Fitzpatrick goes down

Had he stayed healthy, it's quite possible Ryan Fitzpatrick, whom Washington signed in March to be its starting quarterback, took a step (or steps) back from his promising stretch in Miami and once again proved to be a player who is too inconsistent to rely on. 

Yet at the same time, there was serious optimism that the veteran would continue his late-career resurgence with his ninth different NFL organization. Hell, Fitzpatrick himself said the Burgundy and Gold presented the best situation he'd ever been in.

And that's what's so tough about Fitzpatrick's stint with Rivera's team: It was way, way too brief to get an answer one way or another about what his impact in Washington would be.

The 39-year-old lasted just six throws in the opener against the Chargers before suffering a hip injury that has sidelined him ever since. Time will tell if the ailment is severe enough to permanently sideline him.

Of course, Taylor Heinicke was inserted into the lineup after Fitzpatrick exited in Week 1, and though he performed admirably for stretches, it's been impossible not to wonder what Fitz could've done as the unquestioned top QB.

Fitzpatrick might've been amazing. He also might've been awful. Unfortunately, no one will ever know, as Washington's season was forced to veer in a completely new direction before Rivera could even get his guys to their first halftime.

2) The Tampa Bay upset

Washington went into its bye at 2-6, and with Tom Brady and the Buccaneers looming on the other side of that break, most everyone considered Rivera's club to be 2-7. It felt like it was just a matter of time until that record became official.

Ultimately, however, it never did.

Thanks to an on-point Heinicke, a bruising rushing attack, an opportunistic defense and a locker room that was united behind Rivera's "David vs. Goliath" messaging, Washington bested the Bucs by 10 at FedEx Field. The team played a near-perfect game when it absolutely had to and it was a treat to watch.

From there, the squad would apply that same formula for three more victories in Carolina, against Seattle and in Las Vegas. The Tampa triumph sparked a climb back to .500, and with five divisional contests left to go, Washington was in total control of its playoff fate.

But then, something the coaches and players had no control over interrupted it all.

3) The Coronavirus outbreak

"It‘s like, ‘Oh, there’s another one. And there’s another one.'"

That was Brandon Scherff's description of what it was like to watch teammate after teammate enter the COVID-19 protocols during Washington's December outbreak. At one juncture, more than 20 names were on the reserve/COVID-19 list as Rivera's roster got ravaged by the pandemic.

Nothing symbolized the chaos of the outbreak better than when Rivera had to trot out Garrett Gilbert in Philadelphia on a Tuesday night in the thick of a postseason race. That's when the situation went from adverse to absurd.

Now, Washington didn't collapse in its final five outings solely because of the Coronavirus.

Heinicke lost touch of what made him effective during the winning streak, the defense regressed back to the struggling group it was early on and the Cowboys and Eagles showed that they were actually the class of the NFC East.

Having said that, there can be obstacles in the NFL that are too steep to overcome, and the outbreak sure seems to belong in that category. Rivera and the players did their best to keep their focus on football, but that type of mindset wasn't as impenetrable as they'd like it to be — and that's totally understandable.