As much of a fiasco as the Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne skirmish was on Sunday night, it's not as troubling as a larger takeaway that crystallized during Washington's mortifying loss to the Cowboys.
That takeaway is this: The franchise's defensive line, which was supposed to be the club's top strength and one of the league's most dominant groups, simply isn't worth building around as its presently constructed.
The semi-punch that Allen hurled toward Payne was just one of many, many mistakes made by members of the team's front in Week 16. It also could be interpreted as the least-costly of all the errors, seeing as it unfolded on the (custom, temperature-controlled) visiting benches and not during live action.
For yet another game, Allen, Payne and others weren't in sync with their rushes. It's a tendency that Ron Rivera critiqued often as Washington began the year 2-6 and it's now reappearing in the form of free yards for opponents as the organization stumbles toward yet another sub-.500 record:
However, at least the line had all of its players ready to go in the above sequence before the Cowboys snapped the ball. That was not the case on back-to-back plays in the second quarter, where James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill were still jogging toward their spots as Dak Prescott initiated the offense:
Don't forget about the penalties, either. Payne and Toohill both bounced offsides in the first half, but those flags were picked up after the Cowboys completed throws deep down the seam. The early jumps didn't even help Washington pressure Prescott in either instance.
By the way, is now an appropriate time to bring up that, in the outing before the Dallas disaster, this defensive line was bullied to the tune of 238 rushing yards in Philadelphia?
Because it's necessary to remember that, in the outing before the Dallas disaster, this defensive line was bullied to the tune of 238 rushing yards in Philadelphia.
So, in the span of a few days, Washington's collection of edge threats and run stuffers was mauled by the Eagles and worked by the Cowboys while also showing a disturbing lack of organization and discipline. And aside from a four-game winning streak that's feeling increasingly like a mirage, that theme has been present for all of the 2021 campaign.
This is highly concerning for a few reasons, the first of which is that Washington has invested so much in this unit of late and is just not getting satisfying returns on that strategy.
Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Montez Sweat and Chase Young (who hasn't been a part of the recent rash of problems but was very quiet in his eight healthy starts) are first-round choices, while Matt Ioannidis is a well-compensated veteran.
Of course, to be fair to Rivera, no, he wasn't the one who drafted Allen, Payne or Sweat to open up those respective drafts. The only principle contributor of the crew that the coach is responsible for acquiring is Young, meaning Rivera is not the primary architect of Washington's defensive-trenches-first approach; instead, he's merely continued it.
Still, Rivera, along with his handpicked front office and coaching staff, have failed to maximize what should, in theory, be a talented room of menaces.
It's definitely possible — and maybe likely? — that the previous regime overestimated what these premium pieces could do together, yet Rivera's bunch has had essentially two full seasons to shape the D-line into a more effective operation. They've failed to do so.
What's equally concerning is that this core will remain in Washington for a few more years unless Rivera chooses to do something drastic on the trade market.
Over the summer, Allen signed a contract extension that will kick in beginning in 2022 (punches aside, it was the correct call to secure him, as he's ascending after getting paid). Payne, meanwhile, had his fifth-year option picked up and is slated to be around in 2022 as well, just like Ioannidis is. Sweat and Young are also tied to the team for multiple seasons beyond this one.
Now, does it seem absolutely crazy to complain that a defense has five productive linemen locked up for varying lengths when looking ahead? Hell yeah, it does.
Truthfully, this feels like a seriously ridiculous stance to take. A story with an angle like this one shouldn't even exist.
That said, this mix of players has been granted the opportunity to gel in all sorts of combinations and alignments and it just.is.not.happening. The individual accolades — Young won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2020, Allen was named to the Pro Bowl last week — aren't adding up to widespread success for the entire defense.
The overall failures of the over-hyped defensive line fall on everyone, but doing something drastic enough to fix the front falls solely on Rivera. That will most likely come via a trade once the Super Bowl comes and goes, and no one should be off-limits in Rivera's eyes.
Rivera has tried to center his Washington turnaround based on the defensive ends and tackles, but 2021 should serve as proof that it's necessary to stop that project once and for all. How's that for a punch?