Quarterback Alex Smith (calf), wide receiver Terry McLaurin (high-ankle sprain) and running back Antonio Gibson (toe) battled through their respective injuries to play in the regular season finale, and they were all crucial to the Washington Football Team's NFC East-clinching win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night.
Smith threw two touchdown passes, while McLaurin caught a game-high seven passes and a touchdown and Gibson rushed for 75 yards on 19 carries. Without them, Washington may not have been able to put up the points it needed to secure a 20-14 victory.
Now comes an even bigger test: Tom Brady and the surging Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Washington has one of the NFL's best defenses, but it will be tough to stop the Bucs' attack, which is averaging 37.0 points during its four-game winning streak. Washington is going to have to put up some points of its own, and to do so, it will need its biggest offensive playmakers to be as healthy as possible.
"We'll have a plan for Terry as we'll have for Alex as we'll have for Antonio Gibson as well," head coach Ron Rivera said Monday.
Here's how Smith, McLaurin and Gibson are progressing ahead of Saturday's wild card showdown.
Just like last week, Smith, McLaurin and Gibson are all listed as questionable for the Buccaneers game, according to the team's injury report. They all ended up playing against the Eagles to help Washington secure a 20-14 victory.
"Well, they looked good moving around," Rivera said after practice. "We had them off to the side doing the things that they've been doing. They looked good moving around."
Smith stretched with the team but did not participate in individual drills with fellow quarterbacks Taylor Heinicke and Steven Montez. For the second straight day, Heinicke took the first-team reps in the portion of practice open to the media.
Smith, who was a limited participant for the second straight day, is "still a little bit sore," Rivera said.
"It's one of those things where I kind of wish we had an extra day just to be sure. We'll see how he is tomorrow morning, and we'll go from there. We had Taylor take the bulk of the reps as we went through practice today."
Terry McLaurin and Antonio Gibson
After being limited participants Wednesday, McLaurin and Gibson began Thursday's practice on the stationary bikes.
McLaurin talked about his injury with reporters Wednesday (see below), so there was no update about his health aside from what Rivera said about the offensive trio. However, Gibson did address the media for the first time since suffering his turf toe injury against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 7.
"It's getting there," Gibson said. "After the [Panthers] game, I would say it swelled up a little bit, but after the [Eagles] game, coming out, it was not too much setback. I still was where I was at. Now just taking it day by day. ...It feels better definitely."
After not participating in Washington's walkthrough Tuesday afternoon, Smith, McLaurin and Gibson were all limited participants in the team's first full practice of the week, according to the injury report.
Not much changed for the quarterback in terms of getting reps in practice; Heinicke took reps with the starting offense, while Steven Montez also received some reps. Smith did some work prior to the media attending practice, and Rivera said he threw the ball well. Although he did not participate in Tuesday's walkthrough, Smith said the plan is still for him to make progress throughout the week.
"This week's a little sped up in the sense that it is shorter," Smith said. "Tomorrow's going to be a telling day. I feel like I got done what I needed to get done today. Again, just trying to stay short-sighted, not get ahead of myself, doing what I need to get done every single day from the mental side and preparing, and obviously ramping up physically."
Smith is progressing in a similar fashion to last week, but the team is still preparing for the possibility he will be unavailable or limited in the Wild Card round against the Buccaneers. That is why Heinicke is still getting most or all of the first-team reps. Smith is focused on his recovery, but he and the other two quarterback have a collaborative effort in preparing for the upcoming opponent each week.
"Half the time, I'm bouncing things off those guys," Smith said. "We watch all the film together. Obviously all of our meeting and prep [are together]. ...All the stuff we do here is together. It is an open conversation, and that's how it should be. I think that's how healthy QB rooms work."
It is important that the quarterbacks do work so well together, because Rivera believes all three of Washington's signal-callers are interchangeable in terms of skillset. The game plan, Rivera said, will be mostly the same regardless of who is starting, so all of them will need to be on the same page.
"That's why it's important, in my opinion, to have quarterbacks that have been in your system and know your system. That's why we brought Taylor in a few weeks back because here's a guy that's been in the system a few times. That was one of the benefits of having Taylor Heinicke around."
McLaurin participated in practice for the first time in more than a week, which is a positive sign for the receiver after his performance against the Eagles, which he said went "pretty good" despite still experiencing some soreness.
"Conditioning was something that I was not worried about, but trying to be cognizant of, leading up to this past game. I wanted to get some conditioning in. After the first drive, I felt pretty settled in. But coming in, I just wanted to make the most of my opportunities, no matter how many I got."
McLaurin said he did not have much practice with the play in which he scored Washington's opening touchdown, so he had to rely on his mental reps throughout the week. Luckily, he said, he and Smith were able to execute. With the possibility of neither player being a full participant in practice this week, they will have to do so again.
"Going forward into this week, we've got to make even more plays."
Gibson was at practice but spent time working off to the side with trainers. He was joined by Kelvin Harmon, who is on the team's Reserve/Non-Football Injury list. Gibson had a same routine last week heading into the Eagles game, and Rivera has yet to comment on his current status for the Wild Card round.
Since the game is Saturday, Washington held a walkthrough Tuesday afternoon. Afterwards, the team posted an injury report that was an estimation of what players would have done if the team had practiced. Smith, McLaurin and Gibson were all listed as "Did Not Participate," though that should not be a surprised based on the past few weeks.
To understand Smith's availability for this weekend, let's look at what happened last week. After not practicing last Wednesday, Smith was a limited participant Thursday and Friday and started Sunday night, completing 22 of his 32 passes for 162 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. A lot of that production came in the first half when he led Washington to 17 points thanks to 17-of-22 passing for 131 yards and a pair of scores.
"In the beginning of the game I felt pretty good moving around and feeling light on my feet," Smith said after the Eagles game. "Definitely in the second half, though, I was feeling it a little bit. We left a lot out there in the second half as an offense. Certainly a lot of plays I wish I had back. But good enough to go. I felt good enough."
Rivera highlighted Smith's excellence on the opening drive and before halftime, but he also admitted that he thought about making the switch as Smith's calf continued to wear down. Ultimately, he decided to leave his 36-year-old signal-caller in there.
"We had an idea and were trying to execute it for this week. I thought it worked out well enough."
On Tuesday, Rivera said that depending on Smith's health, the team might have to consider a rotation between Smith and backup Taylor Heinicke. "Well, I just know that as we go through the game and get to certain situations and circumstances, we may have to consider something like that. I can't sit here and tell you what it would or wouldn't be. It's going to have to be something that would come up in the middle of the game."
Rivera later said that the Buccaneers' vaunted pass-rush will not impact the quarterback decision. "We have to play the guy that gives us the best chance to win."
Even if McLaurin does not practice at all this week, there is still a chance he will play. That's exactly what happened last week against the Eagles.
"As the game goes on, you get a little sore, you get a little banged up," McLaurin said after making seven catches for 40 yards and a touchdown. "But that's football. I don't want to make this about my injury or make it seem like I did some heroic thing coming back, because at the end of the day you want to put yourself in the best situation to help your team. That's what I wanted to do this week, and I'm just glad to be on the other side healthy and with a win. A great start to 2021."
"I'm pretty confident that he'll be a little further along than he was last week," Rivera added. "We should have a couple good days of practice, so I do anticipate seeing him out there in a limited role and taking specific reps more so than anything else."
Rivera said last week that Gibson was "fine" despite missing practice, and Gibson validated that claim by running the ball 19 times for 75 yards against the Eagles. Rivera has yet to comment on Gibson's status for this week aside from saying that the team has a plan for him.