Wheels come off for Washington as player absences finally take a toll

ASHBURN, Va. -- The worst nightmare occurred for the Washington Football Team. A roster that continued to lose key players endured a week when those losses were too much to overcome. It also leads to a pivotal question during a three-game skid: Was it just about the player losses, or did Washington swerve down a road that threatens to derail any progress?

Washington wasn't good enough to overcome those losses, or even stay competitive in Sunday's 56-14 road loss against the Dallas Cowboys (11-4).

It was Washington's second loss in five days. The team clinched its fifth losing season in a row -- not the step it wanted to take coming off last season's 7-9 finish. Washington's playoff hopes are now remote.

"We've been dealing with a lot of s---, so it's something we've got to learn to deal with and handle," coach Ron Rivera said. "Sometimes we play to our abilities and play to what we're capable of. [Sunday] was not an indication of what we're capable of."

That's why he said the loss was just about one game, not a sign of where the franchise is -- or isn't -- headed. Washington (6-9) was in bad shape after a 27-17 loss at Philadelphia (8-7) on Tuesday, but trailed by only three midway through the fourth quarter. It was in bad shape against the Cowboys two weeks ago, yet had the ball late in the game with a chance to tie.

"This is a bad game. This ain't a direction, I'll tell you that right now," Rivera said. "Look at the way we played in the previous two games and in our circumstances you'd say that's a hell of an effort. What happened [Sunday] was disappointing. Could we have played better? I think so. It didn't happen that way so we live with it."

On Dec. 17, Washington had 23 players on the COVID-19 list; three still remain -- guard Brandon Scherff and linebacker Cole Holcomb were activated Monday. Washington's top two quarterbacks, as well as seven assistant coaches, were out in the loss Tuesday at Philadelphia, forcing the team to start quarterback Garrett Gilbert four days after he was signed off New England's practice squad.

Five days later Washington had to play the Cowboys. In the meantime, the injured reserve list was adding more players, including safety/linebacker Landon Collins, a key to their defensive turnaround prior to the past two games. Among the key contributors on the list: tight end Logan Thomas, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, defensive end Chase Young, running back J.D. McKissic, center Chase Roullier and linebacker Jon Bostic. Corner William Jackson III and linebacker Jamin Davis were unavailable Sunday. Receiver Curtis Samuel has been a non-factor this season, largely because of injuries.

Then, on Thursday, safety and special teams captain Deshazor Everett was involved in a one-car crash that killed his girlfriend. Everett has since been discharged from the hospital.

"Friday was a very difficult day," Rivera said.

Said quarterback Taylor Heinicke: "The whole Deshazor thing that happened, it's really tough. He's one of the bright spots in the locker room; he's always smiling, always working hard. You hear that something like that happened, especially during the holidays, it's tough. Again, there's no excuse for what happened [Sunday]."

Over the past two games Washington allowed a combined 1,016 yards, 83 points and 7.10 yards per play as the team was outgained by 522 yards and outscored by 52 points. In the previous five games, it had allowed 5.35 yards per play.

But there's a line between providing a reason for subpar play and an excuse. Washington was a double-digit underdog entering the game Sunday because of the player absences. A loss would have been understandable, but allowing 42 first-half points is not.

Rivera said of giving reasons versus making excuses: "You're going to sound like that no matter how hard I try not to."

"It does affect us," said defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, who was involved in a sideline skirmish Sunday with teammate Daron Payne when frustrations boiled over. "It's our job to go out there and play good football. Which, for the last two weeks, it has been probably some of the worst football I've ever been a part of, including myself. We have no one to blame but ourselves."

If Washington wants to finish the season pointed in the right direction, it needs to play much better -- starting Sunday at home in a rematch against the Eagles (1 p.m. ET, Fox). Then it needs to address quarterback in the offseason. Rivera and the organization can view the past three games, which followed a four-game win streak, as a byproduct of the roster woes. The danger would be in thinking it’s the only reason for the struggles.

"How you respond to it," Rivera said he told his players, "that tells more about who you are than anything else."

He was talking about Sunday's loss. He could have been talking about the past three weeks.