Injuries have hampered the Washington Football Team over the past three games, but its offense could be at full strength for a NFC East-deciding showdown with the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday Night Football.
And if quarterback Alex Smith, wide receiver Terry McLaurin and running back Antonio Gibson can all play, that would significantly help Washington as it looks to clinch its first playoff berth since 2015.
Since becoming the starter in Week 11, Smith has completed nearly two-thirds of his passes, committed just three turnovers and, most importantly, led Washington to four wins in five games. His experience and leadership are invaluable, head coach Ron Rivera said, as are his ability to protect the ball and distribute it to a multitude of pass-catchers.
"Just the consistency of his play," Rivera said Monday when asked what Washington misses most without Smith, who has been sidelined the past two games with a calf strain.
"The clarity in which he speaks to the guys, the way he puts his little emphasis on specific things when he's calling the play, and the confidence and swagger he has as a veteran guy," Rivera said of the 36-year-old signal-caller. "He tells the guys when he calls the play, he'll say: 'Hey, look, you've got this. If you see that, run this.' He'll give guys a little something to help them. I think that really helps those guys as well."
While Smith has been the team's most important offensive player, McLaurin has been its best while cementing himself as one of the best young wideouts in the NFL. He currently ranks 12th in receiving yards (1,078) and is tied for 19th in catches (80) despite missing the Carolina Panthers game with an ankle injury. In his absence, Rivera said the Panthers "packed their coverage," meaning they jumped underneath routes because they were not concerned with any of the other Washington pass-catchers beating them deep.
"When you have Terry out there with his speed and his ability to get vertical very quickly, you have to honor it," Rivera said. "You can't add safeties into the run game consistently. You can't drop these guys in to play the underneath coverage consistently knowing there's that vertical threat. That's what you miss when you don't have a Terry McLaurin out there."
The only member of the trio who played against the Panthers was Gibson, and he made his presence felt immediately, as 45 of his 61 rushing yards came in the first quarter on eight attempts. He only had two carries the rest of the way, but that was due to circumstances, not the turf toe injury that kept him out the past two games.
"Before I knew it, it was 13-nothing, then 20-nothing," Rivera said after the game. "I thought we abandoned [the running game] when we needed to. I thought we were running the ball well, and we had a great opportunity to throw the ball. Unfortunately, when we threw the ball, we had it knocked out of [the quarterback's] hand, and then it just kind of turned on us after that."
As Washington prepares for its Week 17 showdown, the health of these players are of the utmost importance. Here's how they have progressed throughout the week:
Gibson and McLaurin did not practice for the third straight day, while Smith was a limited participant for the second straight practice. All three of them are listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Eagles, according to the team's injury report.
Rivera said Smith came out of Thursday's practice "feeling pretty good" and that he took the reps that were assigned to him Friday.
"I thought he had a good day of work today," Rivera said. "Moved around well, threw the ball well. Tomorrow will be the indicator."
Rivera also announced that Washington will sign Steven Montez to the 53-man roster for the Eagles' game. He will take the spot of Dwayne Haskins Jr., who was released Monday.
Terry McLaurin and Antonio Gibson:
McLaurin and Gibson spent Friday's practice working with the trainers.
"Just really being smart because we were on the turf today," Rivera said. "Wish we could have had them out on the field yesterday, but it was pretty encouraging."
Smith was the lone member of the trio to practice in any capacity -- he was a limited participant -- but Rivera shared positive updates about all of them in his press conference afterwards.
After missing practice Wednesday, Smith was back taking first-team reps during the portion of practice open to the media. Rivera said his movement was "much, much more fluid," which he viewed as a plus.
"It did continue, and that was good to see," Rivera said when asked about Smith's progress Thursday. "I thought he handled it well. I thought he had a good day. Again, I always say with a little trepidation, we'll see how he is tomorrow morning. But I think it was a step in the right direction. I do agree with you and what you said initially that this is the most we've seen from him early on. Again, it was a plus. It was a positive sign today."
For the second straight day, McLaurin worked with trainers on the side field during the portion of practice open to the media. Despite not practicing again, Rivera shared some encouraging news about the team's No. 1 receiver.
"It's better, it really is," Rivera said when asked how McLaurin's progression has been compared to what the team planned for him in the beginning of the week. "You guys didn't get a chance to see it because we didn't want you to see it. He looked good. He did. He moved around. It was a positive step. We'll see how he feels tomorrow. Again, that's the one thing about when they're working out to the side or something or get a little more work. You always have to see what happens the next day, the next morning, and see how they respond to that much work. That was another positive step, so that was good to see."
Gibson did not practice for the second straight day, but Rivera does not seem concerned.
"Antonio's fine. To play the way he did and as much as he did with that toe, it's tough. What happens is you try to be smart with it and try to keep him off of it as much as possible. He gets a lot of reps in the walk-throughs and stuff like that. That's the important part."
Smith, McLaurin and Gibson all did not participate in practice Wednesday, according to the injury report.
"Just enough to know that they're still working through their soreness on the side," Rivera said when asked what he saw from Smith and McLaurin. "They're pretty much with the trainers right now, just trying to work themselves through it. I did get a chance to watch Alex throw some stuff on the side with the other quarterbacks as well. He was alright. He was."
During the portion of practice open to the media, Smith did not stretch with the team but was in uniform and loosening up off to the side with head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion. Smith then watched as backup Taylor Heinicke took the first-team reps.
However, Smith said after practice that this was part of the plan as he prepares to try and play Sunday night.
"I felt good today. It was kind of planned as far as what we did and the way we did things, but I felt good out there on my feet. I felt like it was a positive. Obviously, trying to take advantage of as many mental reps as I can."
Rivera reiterated there is more optimism that Smith will play this weekend, especially since Smith said he was "really close" to suiting up against the Panthers, but Rivera also acknowledged that Washington has to also prepare for the alternative.
"We're going to be guarded with it. He'll get some opportunities. We want to see some improvement going forward. Again, if not, we want to make sure Taylor [Heinicke] is getting as much work as he can right now."
And like Rivera said last week, he would feel confident in Smith playing even if he does not practice beforehand. "I still believe that veteran players, specific guys like him, are guys that can watch. They can absorb. They get it, and then they can go out and play well. I'm not worried about that."
"We'll see," Rivera said. "Terry did a little work with the trainers off to the side, and we'll see how he is the next morning."
Rivera was not asked about Gibson on Wednesday, but offensive coordinator Scott Turner echoed the head coach's sentiment about the third-round rookie flourishing against the Panthers. And if Washington did not enter the second half down by three scores, Gibson would run the ball more than 10 times for 61 yards.
"It's a shame, really, what happened in the game Sunday," said in regard to Gibson, who had eight carries for 45 yards in the first quarter and two the rest of the way. "We were run-heavy in the first half -- I really wanted to run the ball -- but we had some circumstances in the game and we got behind."
Turner admitted that Gibson is still working his way back, but he feels good about his lead rusher entering the regular season finale.
"Hopefully, we'll get him rolling and he'll be good to go Sunday and he'll give us everything he's got."
Rivera said Smith was "very close" to playing against the Panthers. He was a full participant in Friday's practice -- Rivera said he had an "exceptional day" -- but on Saturday morning, he still felt his calf "grabbing him a little bit." The team checked on Smith again before the contest, but Smith was concerned about the injury bothering him, which led to him being inactive.
In talking to Dr. Robin West, the team's head physician, Rivera understood that Smith needed time to fully heal. With another week of rest and recovery, Rivera is "optimistic about the opportunity" for Smith to play against the Eagles.
Rivera said McLaurin suffered a high ankle sprain against the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 20. McLaurin went down to make "a hell of a catch," Rivera said, when the injury occurred. "Unfortunately, I think the toe...of his foot got stuck. He twisted it."
McLaurin watched the Panthers game from a box at FedExField instead of the sideline because the team wanted him off his feet in a warmer environment. McLaurin has also been wearing a walking boot "just to take a little pressure off that ankle," Rivera said.
For McLaurin's sake, Rivera hopes the team is able to practice outside as much as possible this week. While it's warmer inside and the traction is better, Rivera said practicing on the turf is tough on the ankles, knees and hips. Regardless, Rivera hopes McLaurin can "jog through some things" Wednesday before picking up the tempo Thursday and Friday.
"We're doing everything we can to create the opportunity for him to play this week," Rivera said. "I know head athletic trainer] **[Ryan Vermillion** and his staff are working with him. Terry's been great and really diligent with his treatment. I saw him Saturday and I saw him Sunday getting treatment, just trying to do everything he can to get that thing healthy because this is a really big week for us."
Not only was Gibson active for the first time in three games, but Rivera thought he was "excellent" on his 10 carries, which netted 61 yards.
"He still wasn't completely there in terms of being 100 percent, but what we got from him was pretty doggone good."
Gibson, who was listed as questionable for Week 16, has still not practiced fully since suffering his toe injury against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 7. But as long as Gibson can run like he did against the Panthers in Philadelphia, he'll provide a major boost to Washington's slumping offense.
"He came out pretty good," Rivera said Monday about how Gibson felt after the game. "I actually saw him coming in today, and it looked like he didn't have too much of a limp to that walk. I'm pretty optimistic that he didn't do anything extra to that toe. Plus, he's got a couple extra days before he does anything Wednesday."