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STEVE DeSHAZO: Washington 'headed in the right direction,' but nothing is guaranteed

STEVE DeSHAZO: Washington 'headed in the right direction,' but nothing is guaranteed

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LANDOVER, Md.—Moments after the only NFL team he has ever played for saw its convoluted 2020 season end, Ryan Kerrigan returned, alone, to FedEx Field.

Cell phone in hand, jersey removed, the veteran Washington Football Team defensive end strolled the sideline of his workplace for the past decade. Kerrigan is the team’s second longest-tenured player behind long snapper Nick Sundberg, but that distinction may not last much longer. Not when Kerrigan is a well-paid 32-year-old who plays a position of strength and depth for a team that, like most, will have to make some sober financial decisions in a time of shrinking revenue.

So while Saturday night’s 31–23 playoff loss to Tampa Bay felt like a launching point for better things to come, it was also a reminder that the only guarantee is change.

“He’s a baller. He has the heart of a lion,” second-year receiver Terry McLaurin said of Kerrigan. “He’s a man of few words, but his actions speak volumes. But [in 2021], it’s going to be a different NFL and a different team. That’s why I try to enjoy every guy in that locker room.”

Washington clearly has far more reason for optimism than it did a year ago, when Ron Rivera was hired to renovate a team that had just gone 3–13 and had multiple off-field storms brewing. The team endured Rivera’s cancer treatment, COVID-19 restrictions and a quarterback carousel to claim an unexpected NFC East title (albeit with a 7–9 record) and put a scare into Tom Brady on Saturday night.

Young stars like McLaurin, Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Kamren Curl and Antonio Gibson are the nucleus Rivera plans to build around in the coming seasons. “I’m really excited to see what we bring to the table next year,” said defensive tackle Daron Payne, another building block.

Added veteran tackle Morgan Moses, who has endured plenty of frustration: “I’ve probably been a part of more talented teams, but this group of guys in one room. ... I wouldn’t trade ‘em for the world.”

More good news: All-Pro right guard Brandon Scherff, a free agent who lines up next to Moses, told reporters Sunday morning that he hopes to stay put. The team also should benefit from the experience, however painful, from most players’ first taste of NFL playoff football.

“My first year in Kansas City, we lost the AFC championship game. We were determined to build on it, and we won the Super Bowl last year,” said cornerback Kendall Fuller, who rejoined Washington as a free agent this season. “It’s a similar thing here. ... We’re definitely headed in the right direction.”

Similar words were spoken by Washington players after playoff appearances in 2005, ‘07, ‘12 and ‘15. Robert Griffin III’s spectacular 2012 rookie season was supposed to presage a decade of success.

But for a variety of reasons, the franchise hasn’t made back-to-back postseason appearances since 1990–92, the final year of Joe Gibbs’ first tenure as coach. Building on modest success is never a sure thing.

“If we can grow and get better and add a couple of new pieces, I think we have a shot next year,” Rivera said. Rivera still needs quarterback stability after starting four different players at the position. The fourth, Taylor Heinicke, became a social media hero Saturday night after his inspired effort against the Buccaneers and surely earned himself a spot in training camp somewhere next summer.

But there’s a reason Heinicke was an unemployed journeyman until two months ago. Like his current team, he’ll need to demonstrate consistency—especially when opponents have time to prepare for him.

Washington needs to improve its secondary and could use an upgrade at linebacker and some depth for an offensive line that performed surprisingly well. (A healthy Saahdiq Charles, last year’s second-round pick, would help.)

And even though it won inarguably the NFL’s weakest division, Washington will face a tougher first-place schedule in 2021 after reaping the benefits of a last-place schedule this year.

Rivera will have to make some tough, unsentimental choices. Veterans like Kerrigan (whose production has declined but still wants to start somewhere) and safety Landon Collins (whose Achilles injury opened the door for Curl’s productive rookie season) may become casualties of a team with higher aspirations.

“By no means are we happy with the result,” said McLaurin, who is wise beyond his year. “We’re not in this for participation trophies. But we are headed in the right direction.”

Those are not new words in D.C. We’ll see if this team can back them up for a change.

Steve DeShazo: 374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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