DENVER -- Last season, the Washington Football Team limped to a 2-6 record, preaching patience and progress and that it was oh ... so ... close. And then it won five of its last seven games to win the NFC East and gave eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay a scare in the first round of the playoffs.
One year later, Washington is 2-6 again following Sunday's 17-10 loss to the Denver Broncos. But it will be much harder to make a similar run, and even harder to win the NFC East considering it is 4½ games behind the Dallas Cowboys (6-1).
As Washington enters its bye week, it does so facing a lot more questions with far fewer answers. At least not the answers anyone really wants to hear right now. Is this team building something, as it felt it was entering the season? Or was that hot finish last season just a tease?
"I think this team is still trying to search and find ourselves more than anything else. That's where we are," Washington coach Ron Rivera said.
After Sunday's loss, Rivera said he would re-evaluate all starting positions, among other things.
Washington has nine more games to prove that, in its second season under Rivera, it is indeed building something. Sunday was a game that should have helped prove it was better than what it had shown during a three-game losing streak. It was facing a 3-4 Denver team that had lost four consecutive games.
Left tackle Charles Leno Jr. -- one of only three projected starters for the offense entering the season who was on the field at the end of Sunday's loss -- said the unit needs to find an identity.
"We need to look at the tape and do some self-scouting and understand what we're really good at and do those things," Leno said. "That will help our offense, and then we can find an identity and then we can get rolling in the right direction, because our defense is starting to play really good football."
Last season, Washington's offseason acquisitions made a difference. Tight end Logan Thomas (72 receptions) and running back J.D. McKissic (80 receptions) had breakout seasons. Ronald Darby was solid at corner. First-round pick Chase Young had four sacks, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries in the second half of the season to lead the defense. Seventh-round safety Kamren Curl became a solid starter.
This year, the newcomers haven't produced enough:
Corner William Jackson III has been inconsistent as he learns a new scheme and different techniques
First-round linebacker Jamin Davis has steadily progressed
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was hurt in the second quarter of the season opener and nobody knows if or when he will return
Receiver Curtis Samuel has played 27 snaps because of a groin injury first suffered in late May
Rookie receiver Dyami Brown has missed the losing streak with a knee injury.
Running back Antonio Gibson has been slowed by a shin injury, though he is still able to play. Even Young, who finished last season looking like a player ready to become a top-five pass-rusher this season, has posted just 1.5 sacks and forced one fumble.
"It's the same," Young said, comparing this season's halfway vibes to last year. "I feel like last year, I could have felt like this, I could have felt bad, but we have to keep going. I'm not going to stop."
The reality is, Washington is probably closer to 0-8 than 4-4. In a win against the New York Giants, a last-second missed field goal was nullified by an offside penalty. Hopkins made the extra kick. Against Atlanta, it took some incredible plays in the final minute by quarterback Taylor Heinicke and McKissic to win by four.
"I'm not letting frustration set in," said safety/linebacker Landon Collins. "It's not too hard. I've been playing this game so long, you just try to keep the younger guys -- the guys we need -- tuned in so we make those plays we need to make."
Washington's best hope is some key players return, such as Thomas (hamstring) and All-Pro guard Brandon Scherff (knee), and that others such as Davis and Young take a step forward in their development.
Thomas and Scherff have missed the entire four-game losing streak. Minus Thomas, their best red zone threat, Washington is averaging 5.5 points per game on drives in the red zone compared to 15.75 in the first four games.
"We are where we are," Rivera said. "The nice thing about coming out of the bye is we should get a bunch of guys back on the football field. Then we'll see how we do from there."
But Washington has difficult games remaining at home against Tampa Bay (6-2), at the Las Vegas Raiders (5-2), and two against Dallas. They play on the road against the Carolina Panthers (4-4) and Giants (2-5), and have two games left against the Philadelphia Eagles (3-5). And the Seattle Seahawks (3-5) could have injured quarterback Russell Wilson back when they visit Washington in late November.
Last season, Washington fell to 2-7 before starting a turnaround by winning three straight, including a road win against the 11-0 Pittsburgh Steelers. In Rivera's nine full seasons as a coach, his teams have gone 36-35-1 in the season's first eight games and 42-30 in the second. Of the five times his teams were under .500 in the first half, they were .500 or better four times in the second.
He is frustrated. He is disappointed. He is not panicking.
"I'd like to believe that as we progress through the season, especially my early years as a head coach, a lot of things seem to come together," he said. "[Last season] things kind of came together at the right time for us. I like to believe we are on the same path.
"We still haven't won ... but if we continue to trend in the right way, we have a chance."