The year is 2020. Stadiums seats are occupied by cardboard cutouts. Coaches are wearing face shields. Tom Brady is a Buccaneer. And the Washington Football Team sits atop the NFC East.
For just the second time in Washington franchise history, it is alone in first place in the NFC East after Week 1. The last time Washington had sole possession of first place after Week 1 was in 2002 when the team finished 7-9 in Steve Spurrier’s first year as head coach. Though there are various quirks that have led to this stat, such as Washington’s abysmal record in season openers, it is still significant.
Washington has spent the entire 2019 offseason mired in controversy. Facing societal and financial pressure, the organization retired its 87-year-old nickname, “Redskins” and has abandoned all Native American imagery. Additionally, assault allegations surfaced in the Washington Post detailing the harassment claims of 40 former female team employees. Team owner Daniel Snyder was not directly indicted until the second Post story, and the NFL has since stepped in to conduct its own investigation into the program.
While these stories were enough to dominate headlines, focus inevitably shifted to Washington’s on-field production heading into the team’s 2020 season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. Expectations were low for a team that strung together a measly three wins last season and hasn’t made the playoffs since 2015.
And expectations continued to remain low throughout the first half. Washington recorded 136 offensive yards in the half, but were held scoreless throughout. It wasn’t until Fabian Moreau intercepted a wobbly pass from Carson Wentz shortly before halftime that momentum began to shift. The Washington defense recorded eight sacks in the second half alone to help keep Philly scoreless and scored 20 unanswered second-half points to easily win the game.
And for the first time in a long time in Landover, the headlines were about winning again.
Let’s dive into the rest of the news around the NFC East this week.
Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch suffered a broken collarbone and has been placed on IR. He is expected to miss six to eight weeks, according to ESPN. For Cowboys fans, this resurfaces bad memories of the collarbone injury Tony Romo suffered in 2015 that forced him to miss nine weeks of the season.
Vander Esch was a Pro Bowl selection in 2018 before missing seven games last season due to a neck injury. He confirmed during training camp that there were no issues with his neck.
This injury opens up a large hole for the Cowboys at linebacker. Together, Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith were supposed to return to the prominence of 2018, but Vander Esch is now out and Smith did not have a strong showing in Week 1. Francis Bernard could still be called up from the practice squad. The team also just signed Rashad Smith from the Bears’ practice squad. Joe Thomas will likely step up as a starter now.
The Cowboys also lost tight end Blake Jarwin in the loss to the Rams, who tore his ACL and is out for the season. Dalton Schultz stepped in for Jarwin after he was taken out, but he was credited with two drops in the game. The Cowboys also have Sean McKeon on the roster and Cole Hikutini on the practice squad, but neither poses the same receiving threat as Jarwin.
With backup offensive tackle Cameron Erving suffering a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee and due to miss a few weeks, the Cowboys are already facing significant injury hurdles to start the season.
Just as the biggest story for the Washington Football Team was their win over the Eagles, the dominating question in Philly this past week was: How could they let that happen?
The Eagles offense did nothing short of imploding against Washington. Philly jumped out to a commanding 17-0 lead, but would go on to surrender 27 unanswered points. Carson Wentz committed three turnovers, two interceptions and a lost fumble in the game.
Everyone knew that the Eagles offensive line was entering the game shorthanded due to injuries to several starters. Washington took advantage of this weakness, recording eight sacks in the game buoyed by what is shaping up to be a talented defensive front.
The question for Philly moving forward is, was that Week 1 loss a fluke or an actual reflection of where the team stands?
Though one loss does not define the Eagles, it did expose some concerns moving forward. The team largely ignored the linebacker and strong safety position over the course of the offseason, and felt that loss on Sunday. The loss of Andre Dillard and Brandon Brooks on the offensive line was obvious and depth at those positions continues to be a problem. And the biggest concern of all is Wentz, who did nothing short of crash and burn, looking far from the five-year veteran he is.
The Eagles have the Rams this week - a game that was never a guaranteed win for them even before Sunday’s loss. Even if Philly falls short again, it will be important to pay attention to how they lose because that will give insight into what to expect from them moving forward.
Washington Football Team
The question for Washington is the same as that of the Eagles following Week 1: Was that a fluke? While the team prepares to take on Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals on the road next week, that question will surely be answered.
The Washington defensive line set a high standard following its Week 1 performance, but it faces a true test against a mostly-healthy Cardinals offense. Murray for his part, threw for 230 yards and rushed for 91 in Arizona’s 24-20 road upset of the reigning NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers. He is also coached by one of the game’s best offensive minds in Kliff Kingsbury.
Leading up to Sunday’s matchup against the Cardinals, Rivera has stressed the need to keep Murray in the pocket. But the Cardinals field a speedy offense that Washington has not yet proven it will be able to keep up with. Washington’s secondary will also be tested by stars DeAndre Hopkins and Larry Fitzgerald. Washington cannot afford to allow a breakout play from these guys the way it did against Jalen Reagor in Week 1.
On the offensive side of the ball, it is important to keep in mind that all five of Washington’s scoring drives against the Eagles last week started in Philadelphia territory. Rivera was the first person to remind the media this week that the offense is far from fully developed.
Though the offense came alive in the second half against the Eagles, it was also largely missing from the first half altogether. It was a tale of two halves for Washington last week and Sunday’s matchup against the Cardinals will provide insight into which half is more reflective of the Washington Football Team moving forward.