The Washington Post
Washington Football Team falls
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick suffered a hip injury in a season-opening 20-16 loss to the Chargers.
For 21 minutes Sunday afternoon, the Washington Football Team rode a wave of optimism, a feeling its fans hadn’t experienced for much of the past two decades. It had a new gunslinger quarterback, a deeper roster and the potential for another trip to the playoffs.
But with nine minutes left in the second quarter of its season-opening 20-16 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, the roar suddenly quieted and uncertainty returned — seemingly greater than ever — as Washington’s starting quarterback writhed in pain in the middle of Fedex Field.
On a pass play, Chargers edge rusher Uchenna Nwosu sped past Washington left tackle Charles Leno Jr. and made a beeline for Ryan Fitzpatrick, slamming him to the ground just as he started his windup. The 38-year-old quarterback lay
motionless, then stood briefly only to crumple back down to the ground as trainers rushed onto the field. Fitzpatrick suffered a right hip injury that forced him to limp off gingerly and prevented his return.
For a team all too familiar with quarterback injuries, the sight was gut-wrenching, and the feeling never disappeared even as Taylor Heinicke took over and turned in a performance reminiscent of his postseason start against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January. Heinicke’s magic fell short as the Chargers rallied against a Washington defense that underwhelmed.
In Fitzpatrick’s absence, Heinicke, the undrafted player who signed last year as Washington’s “quarantine” quarterback amid the coronavirus pandemic, led Washington on a pair of scoring drives while completing 11 of 15 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown. He posted a 119.3 passer rating.
“I think that gave a little bit of a spark when we needed it,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “It was good to see. We gave ourselves an opportunity. We just have to protect the ball better.”
Heinicke jump-started a lagging offense, largely because of his mobility and knack for improvising to extend drives but also because of his willingness to take shots downfield.
A three-and-out for his first drive was marked by erratic throws, but Heinicke warmed up after the Chargers completed an 18-play drive that ended with a field goal and put Los Angeles ahead 13-6.
Needing only five plays, Heinicke missed Terry Mclaurin deep but drew a roughing-the-passer penalty that gave Washington a first down and led to a Dustin Hopkins field goal that cut Washington’s halftime deficit to 13-9.
On Washington’s first drive of the third quarter, Heinicke went deep again to Mclaurin with a back-shoulder pass that spun Mclaurin around 180 degrees. Mclaurin somehow caught it along the left sideline as a Chargers defender dived in front of him for an attempted interception.
“I didn’t really get to see it clearly,” Heinicke said. “I believe I was on the ground at that point, but he’s an amazing player. Every time we can try to get the ball in his hands, I think it’s a good thing.”
The 34-yard gain led to Washington’s only touchdown, an 11yard leaping catch by tight end Logan Thomas — the emergency quarterback and the only option behind Heinicke after Fitzpatrick went down — in the end zone to give Washington its first lead at 16-13.
The catch fired up the fans and, for a while, the defense, too. After an up-and-down first half amid defensive line rotations, missed tackles and loose coverage, Washington tightened up to create some game-changing plays. Montez Sweat had a strip sack of Justin Herbert at the Washington 15-yard line (the ball went out of bounds in the end zone for a touchback), and cornerback Wil
liam Jackson III had an interception on Los Angeles’s subsequent drive.
In between, Washington’s offense began to sputter. A penalty on right guard Brandon Scherff on third and five from just outside the red zone led to a failed 51-yard field goal try — out of Hopkins’s usual range. Then, after Jackson’s pick gave the offense a chance to expand its lead early in the fourth quarter, Antonio Gibson fumbled, spoiling an otherwise strong outing from the second-year back (20 carries for 90 yards).
The Chargers started back up on the Washington 3-yard line and needed only three plays — Herbert found Mike Williams in the corner of the end zone — to reclaim the lead for good.
Washington never rediscovered that spark. It converted only 3 of 10 third downs, had just 133 passing yards and was 1 for 2 in the red zone.
Washington did, however, discover plenty of issues with its defense. It allowed 334 net passing yards — it never allowed more than 305 in the regular season last year — and 14 third-down conversions, tied for the most in franchise history.
Its defensive line appeared out of sync and out of place, and the minimal pressure up front allowed Herbert to make easy work of the secondary — especially late in the game, when he picked on rookie cornerback Benjamin StJuste.
“At the end of the day, that’s what teams do,” Rivera said. “They find a way to attack you, and our counter has to be we’ve got to play better or we have to get him some help. We’ll take a nice long look at it and make sure we’re giving him enough help or we’re putting him in a better position to win.”
More concerning were the missed tackles, the missed opportunities and the missed assignments, some of which, Rivera said, could be attributed to confusion or miscommunication, others perhaps to players freelancing.
The disappointment was in the details.
“I think guys are trying to do things, do more than they’re supposed to,” Rivera said. “We got a little saying: ‘ We need 11 guys doing one thing at a time, not one guy trying to do 11 things.’ And that’s probably some of the disappointment because . . . we had some things called specifically for certain things to happen and we ended up with two guys in one area. That’s somebody not doing their job.”
Added defensive tackle Jonathan Allen: “[It was] rushers not doing the little things that we’ve practiced leading up to this point. . . . Defensively, especially the defensive line, we just got to play better.”
Playing in 80-degree weather, Washington made defensive line rotations that Rivera said were tied to the starters “dragging a bit.” But it exposed a significant drop-off in play by the reserves.
On third and 10 in the red zone during the Chargers’ opening drive, Washington showed a fiveman front that included only one starter: Allen. James Smith-williams, in for Sweat on the edge, was called for a neutral-zone infraction that helped set up a touchdown for Los Angeles. Sweat also wasn’t in for the final three plays of the Chargers’ subsequent scoring drive, in the second quarter.
“[ The starters] played seven plays in a row on defense, and so they rotated out,” Rivera explained. “. . . If you watch them and see how they’re dragging a bit, it’s time to rotate.”
Following the game, Rivera and his coaches planned to mine the game film for more answers — about the offense’s inability to finish drives, about the defense’s errors, about the team’s discipline. But the biggest question is one that has gone unanswered for years: What does Washington do at quarterback?
Heinicke fueled hope, despite defeat, but uncertainty lingers after the loss of Fitzpatrick as Washington tries to regroup in a short week: The New York Giants visit Thursday. Rivera said he didn’t have any details about Fitzpatrick’s injury but expected to have more information Monday, after the quarterback undergoes an MRI exam.
The extent of Fitzpatrick’s injury may dictate Washington’s plans for the position, but after watching him limp off the field, his teammates could only hope for another wave of optimism.
“It sucks, man,” said Thomas, who added that he spoke to Fitzpatrick at halftime. “He’s been at war with us since the spring as well. The guy is giving it his all every day. You know, leader of our team, and obviously he’s going to be missed. . . . Hoping for the best for him.”