Rams Washington Football

Rams offensive tackle and Linganore High alum Rob Havenstein (79) blocks Washington defensive end Ryan Kerrigan (91) on Sunday in Landover.

When Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera benched quarterback Dwayne Haskins, he emphasized one reason over the others. This was Rivera’s first controversial use of his immense power within the franchise, and while he justified the benching with two other explanations — Haskins’ slow development and his unfamiliarity with the scheme — he spoke loudest about the NFC East standings. He said the division was there for the taking, and it would be unfair to other players if he put Haskins’ development before them.

During the long, tumultuous offseason, Rivera had preached patience, saying the focus of this season was on growth, not wins. The abrupt about-face was predicated both on the upcoming schedule, which featured three NFC East opponents, and the standings that showed all four teams with losing records.

“My old coach [with the Chicago Bears], Mike Ditka, he used to say: ‘You want to be champions in the division? You’ve got to control the division; you’ve got to win inside the division,’” Rivera said Wednesday. “That’s what it is.”

If Washington is to be a factor in the NFC East race, it likely must win at least two of the next three games. The crucial stretch starts Sunday at the New York Giants (0-5), continues with the Dallas Cowboys (2-3) and, after the bye week, finishes with the Giants. Washington, at 1-4, trails the first-place Cowboys by one game and the second-place Philadelphia Eagles (1-3-1) by a half-game. But Rivera believes Washington is better than its stats because “everybody that we lost to has a winning record.”

And now, after Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a season-ending ankle injury last week, the division is “wide-the-hell open,” in the words of right tackle Morgan Moses.

“By winning these next three games, man, you put yourself in a great spot to win the division,” Moses added. “And that’s something that we’ve talked about. Obviously, we haven’t been putting the best product on the field the last couple of games, and we’ve owned that as players and as coaches. But we know what’s at stake.”

Before the season, Rivera seemed to mean what he said about putting growth first. But then the state of the NFC East “surprised” him. Rivera wasn’t alone. Before the season, analysts saw the division as two distinct battles: The Cowboys and Eagles as contenders for the Super Bowl; the Giants and Washington as contenders for a top-5 draft pick.

But things quickly showed themselves to be different. The Eagles, the division’s preseason betting favorite, were ravaged by injuries on the offensive line, limited by a weak receiving corps and not picked up by a pedestrian defense. But quarterback Carson Wentz was the most unexpected variable, experiencing a sudden, perplexing decline. His rating in ESPN’s QBR statistic is still the league’s seventh-worst, just above Daniel Jones of the Giants, but he’s showed signs of progress the last two weeks with the emergence of receiver Travis Fulgham.

The Cowboys, the division’s current betting favorite, had a similarly rocky start, even before Prescott’s injury. The quarterback had been on pace to shatter the NFL’s single-season passing record of 5,477 yards — in part because he had to. The Cowboys defense has been one of the league’s worst this season, allowing the most points per game (36) and the sixth-most yards (404). Dallas’ offense was explosive despite offensive-line injuries of their own because of Prescott and his weapons, including running back Ezekiel Elliott and a trio of receivers. If backup Andy Dalton can keep the offense on track, the Cowboys still have a fair shot.

For their part, the Giants are who experts thought they were. They committed to rebuilding around Jones, but the season-ending injury to running back Saquon Barkley left him with few dynamic playmakers and little protection from the offensive line. The team’s No. 4 overall pick, left tackle Andrew Thomas, has struggled. New York has battled this season, finishing three of its five games within one score, but the team has a long way to go.

The Giants are beatable, as are most of the teams on Washington’s upcoming schedule, and Rivera decided to be aggressive. He is pushing, in part, because of what he saw when coaching the Carolina Panthers in 2014. The NFC South was the league’s worst division that year, and Carolina ended up with the crown at 7-8-1. The Panthers won their wild-card game before losing the divisional matchup to the Seattle Seahawks, who eventually lost in the Super Bowl.

Washington’s chance at the postseason, and the unpredictability of it, has seemed to buoy players’ optimism.

“When you get into that big dance, anybody can win the big dance,” Moses said. “So, I don’t really see it as a rebuilding year.”

On Sunday, Washington will start its push forward with Kyle Allen at quarterback. He cleared medical protocol after being injured last week in the loss to the Los Angeles Rams, and it’s unclear if third-stringer Dwayne Haskins will even make the trip. He missed his second straight practice Thursday with what’s being described as a gastrointestinal illness, the same ailment that kept him from FedEx Field during the Rams game.

Allen is just one part of the team’s evolution. During this week of practice, Rivera has rotated in new faces at free safety (Deshazor Everett), left guard (Saahdiq Charles) and right guard (Brandon Scherff, who could be activated from injured reserve). Linebacker is the position where the defense needs the most improvement, Rivera added, and the team could replace Kevin Pierre-Louis with Cole Holcomb outside as the second-year linebacker returns from a knee injury.

Yet this aggressive state is fragile. If one NFC East team had surged out to a big lead, going 4-0 or 3-1, Rivera said he wouldn’t have shifted the team’s approach at all. Similarly, if one team distances itself in the next three games, in what Rivera thinks of as the second quarter of the season, he might dial back again. It’s important to “see where we are” after the games, the coach said.

But Rivera believes that, success or failure, the push alone will teach him something about his team.

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