Being a Dallas Cowboys fans the last 25 years hasn’t been easy. But despite the repeated failings of our favorite NFL franchise, one saving grace has typically been that the football team from Washington has often been in even worse shape. But heading into the 2021 offseason, it appears that the Cowboys’ greatest rival may be surpassing them.
If you look at just the overall records then Washington’s 7-9 finish in 2020 isn’t a big margin from Dallas’ 6-10 record. But when you dig deeper, and not really even really that deep, you see a much bigger difference in how these teams performed in the face of adversity and their seeming momentum heading into next season.
I’m not even talking about the fact that Washington won the NFC East and made the playoffs. Someone had to win this division and the playoff spot was an automatic part of that; the Football Team was just the best of our bad bunch.
As undeserving as many thought they or any other NFC East winner was of making the tournament, yesterday Washington give Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a real run for their money. This came even after Alex Smith was ruled out earlier in the day and the starting quarterback became Tyler Heinicke.
But Heinicke was up for the challenge and his teammates were with him. They didn’t look like a group who’d already given up or were unsure of themselves. While the Bucs ultimately won and Washington’s season ended, this was a “moral victory” in many ways for an organization that has been an NFL bottom-feeder for two decades.
Since Daniel Snyder bought the team in 1999, Washington has only had six winning seasons in his 21 years of ownership. Even when they occasionally flash with a solid year they can’t build on it and sustain success.
But something feels different with Washington right now, and it seems to go to their hiring of Ron Rivera as head coach in 2020.
Rivera took over team this year in the midst of a personal battle with cancer and the organization’s struggle with its own identity. Not only was Washington’s former name and mascot finally being discarded in the name of racial sensitivity but then there was scandal coming out of the front office for past acts of mistreatment towards women.
No team in the NFL or perhaps all of sports was more in need of a culture change than this one. And Rivera seems to have been the perfect coach for the situation; the noise surrounding the franchise didn’t seem to affect the work happening on the field.
It was hardly easy to just go play football, either. QB Dwayne Haskins poor play and poor off-field decisions eventually got him released less than two years after being a 15th-overall pick. Alex Smith’s return seemed to stabilize things and, even thought he missed some time late in the year with a leg injury, the Football Team did enough with him to post their division-winning record.
The perseverance in the face of all of these obstacles is really remarkable, so much so that it leaves this Cowboys fan envious of Washington’s head coach for the first time in about 30 years of following football.
This isn’t even about Washington blowing Dallas out in both of their 2020 meetings. We’ve seen countless flukes through the years in these rivalries; a couple of game results aren’t enough basis for any major theories.
No, this is more about the seeming culture and personality that has developed with the Cowboys under this first year of Mike McCarthy’s leadership. We’re seeing a lack of effort and accountability from players that, for whatever failures there were, we never really saw during Jason Garrett’s long tenure as head coach.
Sure, McCarthy certainly had his own major challenges in his first season with the Cowboys. But was the best QB in Washington this year, Alex Smith, really a far cry from Andy Dalton? Statistically, Dallas’ backup QB was actually better than Smith overall in 2020.
You can pick apart the nuances between both rosters, but this is about something bigger. It’s about the way some players looked lethargic on the field and even Xavier Woods admitting back in October that there was a lack of effort. It was Jaylon Smith looking lost and out of control at times while publicly complaining about Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan’s scheme.
It was the fact that Nolan, who hadn’t a tangible NFL achievement since the early 2000s, was given the DC job in the first place as what appeared to be a personal favor from McCarthy. And if Mike thought he was getting a winner to run his defense then his evaluation skills need to be severely questioned.
One season isn’t enough to fully gauge either of these head coaches. As we said, Washington seems to always fall apart immediately after any success. Even Ron Rivera may be powerless against it.
To be fair to McCarthy, perhaps he can make some adjustments and get a healthy enough roster to get much different results in 2021. His track record in Green Bay at least spoke to being a consistent winner in the regular season and in his division, even if playoff results were lacking.
But right now, just based on the 2020 season, I’d feel a lot better about my team’s immediate and long-term prospects if I was a Washington fan.
And that’s something I’d never thought I’d say.