Head coach Ron Rivera has taken a blunt approach in the days after Sunday's blowout loss to the Buffalo Bills. The Washington Football Team isn't playing to its abilities, he said, and it's clear something has to change.
Washington's woes don't come from a lack of trying, though.
The players want to win. Even when Buffalo was rolling up and down the field, Rivera saw noteworthy individual moments that backed up those claims. And while he doesn't want to fault them for giving effort, that approach is not what wins games. He wants them to understand that if they play as a unit, the moments they're trying to create will come to them.
"I think some of us are trying too hard to make something happen, and that's costing us," Rivera told reporters Monday afternoon. "And again, it's really just do your job, put yourself in position."
The statement echoes the first charge Rivera gave to his players once he became Washington's head coach. "Do it the way we ask," he said to a room filled with players, reporters and executives. "You do it that way, the success will be yours. If you don't, the success is going to be yours, but it's not going to be right. Why? Because if you fail, it's on you."
For the most part, the players have bought into that way of thinking. On Sunday, though, it was a mixed bag, which led to some glaring holes on both sides of the ball. The play from the safety trio of Landon Collins, Kamren Curl and Bobby McCain, which Rivera said had moments of putting themselves in the right position, could not stop Josh Allen from picking the defense apart with 358 yards and four touchdowns. Curl, for example, made a stop for no gain against Devin Singletary. It was followed up by an 11-yard reception from Cole Beasley.
There were moments that the defense held strong. Jamin Davis, who played in 52% of the snaps, recorded six tackles, including a fourth-down stop. Cole Holcomb, who did have issues in the passing game, finished with 14 tackles.
But the back-breaking drive came near the start of the third quarter, when there was still hope of coming back from a two-score deficit. After setting up shop at their own 7-yard line, the Bills paper-cut their way to the end zone on a 17-play drive. With a five-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sander, any optimism of Washington winning died down to a smolder.
"I think the thing they have to understand is that doing things the right way, giving yourself a chance by playing within the framework, it creates the opportunities that they want," Rivera said "And that's hard."
Offensively, any positive moments sprinkled throughout the afternoon were overshadowed by the fact that the unit simply couldn't stay on the field. While Buffalo found the end zone with ease, Washington averaged just over four plays per drive. There wasn't one clear culprit. Sometimes it was penalties or a fumble that took away momentum; other times it was players trying to do too much.
Both Taylor Heinicke's interceptions, while coming from a desire to make a play, were the result of putting the ball in places it should never be rather than looking for other options. In those moments, especially against a defense of the Bills' caliber, Rivera would like to see Heinicke play like a "game manager."
"Go ahead and throw the checkdown, go ahead and throw the drag or the slant as opposed to, 'okay, I'm going to wait for the dig to get it to that middle window,'" Rivera said. "It might be a simple check down on third and eight and give the guy a chance to catch it, turn and run and see if he can pick it up."
The lack of execution doesn't necessarily take away from players' individual moments. It doesn't lessen the fact that Antonio Gibson is 11th in rushing and averaging or that Terry McLaurin is off to a great start to Year 3. The defense, for all its issues, has occasionally flashed its talent. There were moments, like Gibson's 73-yard touchdown, where that was enough to get the job done in short bursts.
The fact is that Washington doesn't want to be the 7-9 team of 2020. Its goal is to be more like Buffalo, which is now a yearly contender. Is Washington far off from that? No, Rivera said, he doesn't think it is.
But if Washington wants to be one of "those teams" -- the ones that are competing for a Super Bowl -- it has to play like it.
"We've got to play disciplined football all the way across the board, on all three phases," Rivera said. "And that gives us a chance to win football games."