Late on a video conference call with reporters this week, Washington Football Team star Chase Young dropped a line that almost ignited as he spoke.
“I feel like if you look on paper, we could be the top defense in the league,” the second-year defensive end said.
It didn’t matter that the next thing he said was: “Now we just have to do it and put it on the field.” Or that it was but just a line on a videoconference during which he talked about everything from healing constant ankle pain to the public life of a famous young athlete. The fact that the most important player on a good defense loaded with potential had suggested that it could actually be the NFL’s best this year made headlines during an otherwise slow football week.
Players and coaches tend to avoid saying such things, especially during the calm of spring OTA practices and minicamps, because they bring with them the burden of expectation, setting an outrageously aggressive target that is often impossible to reach. And what measure is used for determining the best? Last year, Washington’s defense allowed the fourth fewest points in the NFL and was second in yards allowed yet was also 13th in rushing yards surrendered. All respectable numbers, but none were actually the best.
Suggesting Washington could have the league’s best defense now has the potential to follow Washington’s players through training camp and into the start of the season, pumping up expectations that might be difficult to match for a team that was just 7-9 last year. Young’s words could be thrown back at him after a bad week against a good quarterback. A slow start will bring demands to know what happened to the defense that was supposed to be the best.
This is the next step for a team that appears to be moving in the right direction. The success of last season’s defense along with the additions of free agent cornerback William Jackson and first-round linebacker Jamin Davis, as well as the return of safety Landon Collins, gives Washington a defense without many holes. Young merely said out loud what many around the NFL already have been thinking. How the team’s mostly young players handle the presumptions about their potential will have a lot to say about how far it can go this fall.
There seems to be a part of Washington coach Ron Rivera that likes Young’s confidence, seeing it as many coaches and players do as a kind of swagger — so certain of greatness that they are unafraid to declare it, and then back it up. The right amount of swagger usually wins. But there is also caution in Rivera’s voice whenever he talks about things like lists of top defenses.
“It’s interesting,” he said after Wednesday’s minicamp practice, as he often does in response to similar questions, a hint that rankings shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Rivera is an old-fashioned coach, never fond of titles like “best,” “top,” or “worst.” Numbers don’t impress him. He rarely digs into the kind of analytics that fascinates younger generations.
“Figures lie and liars figure,” is one of his frequent sayings.
“You can pull anything you want out of the air and make that state and make it important,” he said Wednesday.
He then launched into a diatribe, presumably about the website Pro Football Focus, which grades every player in every game, much the way coaches do, and uses those grades to generate rankings of positions and units.
“There’s a group out there that does all these stats and puts all these stats out there, they pull the stats from all over the place, and the thing that I’ve found is those numbers they come up with are subjective,” Rivera said. “They don’t know exactly what we are doing and how we are doing it. They don’t know what all the rules are. When they grade somebody and put a number out there, you got to be careful because of that. It’s subjective. And that’s the one thing about grading people — it’s your opinion.”
The amazing thing is how quickly Washington has gone from 3-13 in 2019 to talking about having the NFL’s top defense just two years later. A lot of that is the influence of Young, whose dauntlessness in the 13 months he has been in the league has given the defense a boldness it lacked before he became the second overall pick in last year’s draft.
Before saying that Washington could have the league’s top defense, he had been talking about needing to have “a vision” — a goal that everyone will know what it “will look like.”
“You’ve got to be working towards something,” he added.
In choosing the NFL’s best defense as his “vision,” Young has dropped a gigantic challenge for his teammates; one difficult to measure and perhaps achieve during a season in which it is scheduled to face quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Josh Allen, Matt Ryan, Justin Herbert and possibly Aaron Rodgers all before Thanksgiving.
But it’s all part of the new Washington. For when has this team had an expectation like that?