The Washington Football Team was eliminated from playoff contention Sunday afternoon after a 20-16 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, meaning the only left to play for against the New York Giants is a strong finish to the season.
It's a disappointing end for the 2021 campaign considering that a month ago, Washington was in the driver's seat for a playoff spot. The road finale against the Giants is also a chance to evaluate the future, and while Washington will be playing to win in Week 18, it will get a good, long look at its depth and young players in the matchup.
"We want to try and go out and set a tone early on and see what happens," said head coach Ron Rivera. "But at some point, just understand, we'd like to see some guys and if there's guys that you want to see specifically."
It's been a challenging season for Washington in more ways than one. Injuries to key players like Chase Young, Logan Thomas and Ryan Fitzpatrick changed a lot of the team's plans in terms of personnel. Then, an outbreak of COVID-19 cases forced it to play multiple backups, including a quarterback who had just five days to prepare for a critical division matchup.
It has, however, provided a unique opportunity to evaluate the rest of the roster, and it's already yielded a few answers. One of the most notable was that John Bates, a fourth-round pick out of Boise State, can handle a larger role. He appeared in 92% of the offensive snaps against the Eagles, and as Scott Turner observed, "he catches everything." He has 19 catches on 23 targets for 244 yards and a touchdown.
"He's gonna get stronger with the more time he has with our strength staff and as he grows older," Turner said. "I think he's got a chance to be a really good player going forward."
Rivera agrees, saying the Giants game will "most certainly" be a big opportunity for Bates. He also foresees an expanded role for fellow tight end Sammis Reyes as well. Reyes, who has yet to record a catch and mostly been a special teams player, has been progressing well in his first season playing the sport, and Rivera would like to "double" his six offensive snaps from the Eagles game.
"It'll be interesting to watch him and see where he is in terms of his growth," Rivera said. "You've seen him play faster and faster and more physical because he's more confident in what he's doing and how he's doing it."
Washington also has a better idea of what undrafted rookie Jaret Patterson can handle after putting up a game-high 98 total yards against the Eagles. His 57 rushing yards gave him the second-most on the ground for a Washington running back this season, and even if Antonio Gibson comes back from the COVID-19 list in time to play, there's a good chance Patterson will continue to get more carries with J.D. McKissic on Injured Reserve.
"He performed great. Again, he's making huge strides all year," said quarterback Taylor Heinicke. "But you see how tough he is and he's a good football player. So hopefully he just keeps progressing."
Other players who Washington could have its eye on include Dyami Brown, who has catches for 48 and 25 yards in the past two weeks. Jamin Davis, Washington's first-round pick, played in just 13 snaps against the Eagles, and the Giants game will offer one more chance to evaluate the rookie. Shaka Toney also has had an expanded role with various defensive linemen being on the COVID-19 list, so he'll have another chance to show off his skillset as well.
"If your number's called, you gotta step up," Toney said. "This is football. Everybody wants an opportunity … you gotta take it, you gotta maximize that moment."
What Rivera and his staff sees from their younger players will give them a better idea of where the roster is heading into Rivera's third season as Washington's head coach. Rivera believes this upcoming offseason will be "very important" to his plans for the team.
Either way, Rivera is optimistic about Washington's future. He sees some similarities to his time in Carolina, which had a 13-19 record in Rivera's first two seasons earning four playoff berths in five seasons. It still comes down to his players' development, and from what Rivera has seen, he still feels good about their progress.
"I'm gonna look at this like we got an opportunity, we really do and I believe that. You can ask me all you want, but I'm gonna tell you, I believe we have an opportunity. So, we're gonna continue to approach it that way."