Rivera is disappointed, not relieved, after WFT's 2-2 start originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
One thing Ron Rivera has emphasized since he arrived in Washington is that he likes to break down each season into four quarters. Last year during the pandemic-altered season, the head coach used each four-game stint as a way to group games together and measure where his team was at.
On Monday, Rivera addressed the media following Washington's Week 4 victory over Atlanta, a win that put the Burgundy and Gold back at the .500 mark through the team's first quarter of the season -- albeit with one extra contest in this new 17-game season throwing off the math some. Trailing Dallas by just one game for the division lead, Rivera ought to be pleased with getting through the first four games with a 2-2 record, right?
"I wouldn’t say relief, I'd say disappointment," Rivera said Monday on the team's 2-2 start. "Because I think if we lived up to or played up to our abilities, if we’d done some of the things I think we're capable of defensively, I think we could be better than 2-2. But we're not. We are what our record says and that's 2-2."
The head coach has a point. While some might think Washington is fortunate to be 2-2 (remember the Dexter Lawrence offsides in Week 2 against the New York Giants), the reality is this team entered the season with higher expectations than just being a middling ballclub. After four weeks, that's exactly what they are.
Washington's struggles through the first four games largely belong to Jack Del Rio's unit. The defense -- a group that finished top five in every major statistical category in 2020 -- has taken a significant step back so far this season.
Washington is allowing 417.5 opposing yards per game this year, the fourth-worst mark in the NFL. Additionally, the team is giving up over 30 points per contest through four weeks -- only the Falcons and Chiefs have allowed more points this season. In 2020, Washington's defense allowed the second-fewest yards per game and fourth-fewest points per matchup.
That's a stark difference.
With lackluster performances like they've had this season, Washington's defense is certainly fortunate that its offense has bailed it out and led the team to a pair of victories.
"We don't have expectations. We have standards," defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said following Washington's Week 4 win in Atlanta. "We haven't been achieving our standards, so that's what we've got to do better."
Allen, who has been one of the few players on Washington's defense to have a stellar season thus far, has heard the criticism and is accepting the responsibility.
"We've been talking about this for four weeks," he said. "There's really not much left for me to say besides, 'We've just got to do better.'"
It hasn't been all negatives for Washington, though. In three games since taking over as Washington's starter for an injured Ryan Fitzpatrick, quarterback Taylor Heinicke has led the team to two victories, with each one coming on a game-winning drive.
Heinicke might not be the team's answer at quarterback long term, but there's also plenty of reasoning to think he could stick around for a while. He's got a certain fire in him that very few past quarterbacks in Ashburn have had. The 28-year-old is not afraid to take chances, something his teammates love.
"Even when he's scrambling around, his eyes stay downfield," wide receiver Terry McLaurin said postgame following Washington's Week 4 win. "He knows that he could give us opportunities to make plays down the field as well. Can't say enough about him, the way he extends plays, the way he gives us a chance one each and every play. It's like, no play's ever dead when Taylor's back there."
Like Heinicke, McLaurin is also a major reason Washington has two wins through four games. The wide receiver has 354 yards and three touchdowns through four games, truly emerging as one of the NFL's best wide receivers in just his third season in the league.
After losing in Week 1 to the Los Angeles Chargers, victories over the Giants in Week 2 and the Falcons in Week 4 became necessities in order to prevent falling into an early-season hole, even if Rivera didn't consider them 'must-win' games. While neither victory was pretty, each win looks the same in the standings.
When Rivera took over as head coach in January of 2020, he stressed that it would be a process turning the program in Washington around. Looking back to where the franchise was at this time in 2020, the team has already come a long way.
Remember, Washington was 1-3 through the first quarter of the 2020 season. Rivera had just benched first-round QB Dwayne Haskins for Kyle Allen after the team had lost games to the Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens -- each by two touchdowns. Three months later, the club won the NFC East.
As Washington entered the second quarter of its 2021 season, this upcoming stretch is arguably the team's toughest. A solid New Orleans Saints team comes to town next weekend and the reigning AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs arrive after that. Then, Washington travels up north for a date with the Green Bay Packers in Lambeau Field before heading out west to Denver for a clash with the 3-1 Broncos before a Week 9 bye.
Rivera might not have been thrilled with his team's 2-2 record through the first four weeks, but the reality is that the head coach should be ecstatic if his club goes .500 or better during the second quarter of the 2021 season.
"We've got some things to work out, some things to give ourselves a chance to win football games," Rivera said. "I’m excited as we start the second quarter of the season.”