ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Football Team has reached this point in the past. It enters an offseason full of hope after finishing strong and reaching the postseason. What it hasn't done in the past: build on that success.
In order to finally do so, Washington must answer several questions -- none bigger than who will play quarterback in 2021 and, perhaps, beyond.
"We can get crazy better," Washington rookie defensive end Chase Young said.
To keep climbing, though, multiple NFC scouts and talent evaluators point to quarterback as the obvious stumbling block.
Washington has not made the postseason in consecutive years since 1990-92. The franchise has made the playoffs five times since, and in three of those years it missed a repeat appearance in the postseason by one game. In the other two, it went a combined 8-24.
Washington, which finished 7-9, remains in a rebuilding process. While it won five of its last seven games to earn the NFC East title, it also benefited from playing in a weak division. The franchise had won nine or 10 games in each of its previous five playoff seasons.
"We got to the playoffs, and everybody's excited about that," Washington coach Ron Rivera said. "That's great. But that's not the goal. The goal is to win the Super Bowl. It's like that old saying that the team that ends up on top just doesn't land there. They had to work their way up. So, we're on our way up."
Washington won because it has a young, and excellent, defensive front -- one NFC scout called it "great." It has standout ends in Young and Montez Sweat. It needs to add to the back seven, but the foundation is set to build a championship-caliber defense.
But it might not matter if the team is unable to settle on a quarterback.
Rivera said they would be meeting on that topic this week, but it's hard to come up with any other conclusion than Washington must find one.
Alex Smith, 36, is mulling his future -- if he does return, will he last a full season? Kyle Allen was viewed as a backup/fringe starter and now is coming off a broken ankle; Taylor Heinicke is acknowledged as a terrific story in the organization, but that guarantees nothing other than fighting for a roster spot. They also have Steven Montez, an undrafted free-agent rookie. They have parts; they need The Guy.
Check out the quarterbacks left in the playoffs (Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes, Cleveland's Baker Mayfield, Buffalo's Josh Allen, Baltimore's Lamar Jackson, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Tampa Bay's Tom Brady, New Orleans' Drew Brees and L.A. Rams' Jared Goff). Five have been to the Super Bowl and four have won it. That's the kind of guy you need to advance -- especially if other holes exist on the roster.
One NFC scout said Washington had to scheme its way to points, a hard way to live. What the team needs, he said, is a stronger front that can help develop an identity and lead to more bread-and-butter plays that don't need to fool the defense to succeed.
The hard part will be acquiring that quarterback, and it's uncertain what veterans might be available and at what cost.
Washington, which picks at No. 19 in the 2021 NFL draft, could select a QB. However, there also is a belief, by bolstering the lineup elsewhere on offense, it could win nine or 10 games with average to solid quarterback play. In 2018, before Smith was hurt, the team played turnover-free ball and was 6-3, but not viewed as a legitimate threat for the postseason.
A higher level of play is needed for the Super Bowl.
That's one reason Washington has failed to repeat playoff seasons. It appeared to have quarterback issues resolved in some of those years. In reaching the playoffs in 1999, Brad Johnson threw for 4,005 yards and 24 touchdowns, but owner Dan Snyder brought in Jeff George in the offseason, which angered Johnson. They then went 8-8 and fired coach Norv Turner late in the 2000 season.
Griffin was the NFL's Rookie of the Year in 2012 and was named to the Pro Bowl. But he tore his ACL in a playoff loss to Seattle. Also, a massive fissure developed between he and the coaching staff. Before training camp that summer, one assistant coach said he told his wife they were going to be horrible, in part because of those issues. They went 3-13.
And in 2015, Kirk Cousins threw for 4,166 yards and 29 touchdowns. He followed that with 4,917 yards and 25 touchdowns, but struggled down the stretch and, with a playoff berth at stake in the season finale, threw two interceptions. Washington lost four of its last six -- two coming against teams that finished with losing records. The storyline in those offseasons was Cousins being placed on the franchise tag and whether they could keep him around. They eventually traded for Smith and let Cousins walk after the 2017 season.
Rivera's Carolina Panthers teams did not post consecutive winning seasons during his eight full seasons, but they did make the postseason three years in a row and four out of five. In that stretch, the Panthers went a combined 34-13-1 and reached one Super Bowl, thanks to a top defense and an elite quarterback in Cam Newton.
In Washington, Rivera has the makings of a defense that could be good for several years. Players exited the season praising the culture created by Rivera. The team persevered through the coronavirus pandemic and Rivera's cancer battle while starting four quarterbacks.
"Nobody gave us a shot in probably 90% of our games," said guard Brandon Scherff, a pending free agent who wants to return. "But we came out on top. That shows the character and resiliency that we have as a team."
But, as the franchise has seen, keeping the momentum has been the hardest part.
"The key to it really will be the way we come back, and how we approach the upcoming season," Rivera said. "If we come back and we're fat and lazy, we're going to get the crap kicked out of us. It's that simple."
Players heeded his season-ending message.
"Everybody on this team knows we have something to build on and what we can do," Young said. "Next year is our chance to prove that."