Washington's final game of the 2019 season was a wholly uninspired showing in Dallas. The team, at 3-12, had nothing to play for — and they made that quite obvious in a 47-16 defeat.
Soon after the conclusion of that dreadful contest, there was almost a sense of relief. No one would have to watch the Burgundy and Gold for a while. Phew. Bruce Allen was quickly canned, which most would identify as the highlight of the entire year.
Compare that to how the franchise wrapped up the 2020 campaign. Ron Rivera's young roster and a fourth-string quarterback put a serious scare into Tom Brady's Bucs in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. That matchup took place one week after they captured the division title. There was no deep sighs this time, either; they have instead been replaced by heaping optimism.
The point is this: Almost 24 months ago, Allen (sorry to bring him up twice in four paragraphs... that's probably three mentions too many) proclaimed that Washington was "close" to being a contender. The notion was laughable.
Yet now, they truly are.
Rivera and Jack Del Rio possess a defense that vaulted up the league's leaderboards in plenty of categories, one that features an emerging megastar in Chase Young, a second pass rusher who'd be many squads' most dangerous option in Montez Sweat, an unbelievable seventh-round find in Kam Curl and much more.
Scott Turner's unit, meanwhile, should be led by Terry McLaurin and Antonio Gibson, a pair of dynamic third-rounders, for the foreseeable future. That pair will be supported by Logan Thomas and JD McKissic, two of the better free agent signings of last March, and an offensive line that, if Brandon Scherff returns, will be completely familiar with one another.
Rivera has also constructed a training staff that's respected by the locker room and is now working in conjunction with a reshaped front office. Even the organization's social media wing is among the sport's most engaging and cutting edge.
Not all is right in Ashburn, of course, especially at the top. Let’s not get too, too carried away.
Dan Snyder and the minority owners are feuding, and that battle is only going to intensify. And as solid as Rivera's football culture appears to be, the dubiousness about the full operation under Snyder firmly remains.
Aside from that, the head coach has already begun the process of searching for a general manager to bring in, so that's a box that's waiting to be checked off. On the field, quarterback is as glaring a need as ever, McLaurin could use a more threatening target across from him and Del Rio sure wouldn't mind placing a do-it-all linebacker in the center of his group.
So, Washington is still at least a tier below the NFL's true elites, and more likely two. Plus, drama could be coming at any moment that saps some or even a lot of these positive vibes.
However, the fact that there are positive vibes at all is in direct contrast to where the team stood about a year ago. Unlike the other postseason berths in the 2000s, which were total one-offs, this most recent NFC East crown has the makings of a tangible beginning, something that is only the start.
Thanks to that, "close" isn't a punchline right now; it's actually fitting.