By Barry Svrluga,
The jokes are so easy they’re probably best left unsaid. Given the events of Sunday at FedEx Field — an impossible-to-see-coming 27-17 victory for Washington over Philadelphia — no one really needs to hear that the parking lots don’t normally look as empty at kickoff until at least December. Or that the prohibition of fans from the Washington Football Team’s season opener could only help the home team, given that all those green-jerseyed Eagles fans who normally overtake this place couldn’t make the trip down Interstate 95.
Put all that aside, and here’s what an NFL season being staged during a pandemic feels like: In the fourth quarter of a tie game, Washington running back Peyton Barber burst through the line of scrimmage and into the end zone for what would be the game-winning score. The public address announcer blared, “Touch-doooooooown, Washington!” Who those words were intended for remains unclear. The response in a building that holds 82,000 people: a burst of enthusiasm from the Washington bench, and an empty echo that rattled around the seats. In the NFL of 2020, energy and momentum can only come from within.
By this point in the novel coronavirus pandemic, the idea of playing sports in vacant stadiums can almost seem rote. Know this: In person, it’s decidedly odd, even eerie. Only Kansas City and Jacksonville welcomed mask-wearing fans this week. Until further notice, that’s how this NFL season will be conducted. Nearly 6.5 million cases of a virus that has killed more than 190,000 Americans will cause teams and authorities to make such decisions out of both caution and common sense.
But even as we settle into the most unusual NFL season on record, a pertinent question arose during a dizzying Sunday at FedEx Field: If the Washington Football Team is, indeed, overhauled in both style and substance, and no one is around to see it, can it really be happening?
Blink your eyes clear, because what transpired Sunday — a 17-0 Washington deficit that somehow turned into a Washington win — was real, very real.
“We didn’t have a lot to gauge on who we are and who we’re going to become,” first-year head coach Ron Rivera said. “But we had an opportunity to show, and the guys did.”
Which qualifies as a stunner, because so often in such moments in years past, Washington would be given the opportunity to show and would sniff at it, decidedly disinterested. Shoot, a year ago in the season opener — this one at Philly — Washington shot out to a 17-0 lead — and lost. Given the franchise’s DNA, that came to the surprise of precisely no one.
Yet here are the things that have changed since this team last won a football game: the name, the team president, the coach, the radio crew. What has now changed, even for a single day: the result.
“It bodes well for who we can become as a football team,” Rivera said.
Forgive him, Washington fans. He’s new here.
Still, what a thing to allow yourself to think. And to get the players to think. And to get the fan base to think.
Even before the game started, there were subtle indications that Washington might be a different football team. More important than a win or loss — for any team in any city during this opening weekend — was the idea that NFL players are now encouraged to present their views on racial and societal injustices to the public, to use their platforms. So about a half hour before kickoff, the Philadelphia and Washington players lined up on opposite hash marks, faced each other and locked arms — a show of unity.
The Eagles then left the field. Washington remained. When the names of Black Americans who have been killed at the hands of police showed on a video board, the players and staff knelt — together. When the national anthem began, the players and staff stood — together. A few players raised their fists.
These moments, they can be moving. But for the team, there were no surprises. Over the course of the week, the players had met to discuss the best approach — together.
“I wanted to find a way for us as a team to be unified — not one person kneeling, one person sitting down, one person standing up,” quarterback Dwayne Haskins said. “We’re a team. I know everyone has their own opinions and everything, but that’s what life is about. It’s figuring out how people feel.”
There’s something to a team listening to one another, even if it’s not on matters of playing the correct coverage or running the right routes. There’s got to be a link between that unity Washington’s players showed before the game and the way Washington came back during it.
“I thought that was one of the reasons we were able to come back and win,” Haskins said. “We’re a family.”
At the center of that is Rivera. Not because he pushed his players to do one thing or another. Rather, simply because he listens to them. He cares how they feel. The franchise he is employed by is unusually familiar with tumult and turbulence. This offseason — with the name change followed by two damning stories in The Washington Post that outlined an environment of rampant sexism under owner Daniel Snyder — set a new standard. Throw in Rivera’s cancer diagnosis, and there’s just a chronic feeling around this franchise: What next?
“It’s been a tough offseason,” Rivera said. “It really has.”
And then, just more than 23 minutes into the season, his team trailed 17-0.
“I’m not sure who played that first quarter for us in burgundy,” Rivera said.
Uh, again, folks. He’s new here. Jay Gruden could tell him. Mike Shanahan could tell him. Jim Zorn could tell him. Shoot, a penny for the thoughts from the owner’s box at that point.
There was no crowd to boo, which may have been a relief. But there was nowhere to turn for support, either. This had to come from Rivera and his staff. It had to come from the players themselves.
“I just love the resilience,” Rivera said.
Imagine that. For once, it would have been nice to hear a FedEx Field crowd’s reaction to a quality that has been scarce here for decades. Resilience? From the Redsk . . . er, the Washington Football Team? Pick a more unexpected Washington football result from the past two decades. Maybe that Monday night 15 years ago in Dallas, when Mark Brunell overcame a 13-0 deficit by hitting Santana Moss for two scores in the last four minutes? Maybe.
With this football in a pandemic, there’s all sorts of stuff to get used to. With one weekend down, there’s no way to yet determine whether it’ll be a success come January.
That’s also true for Washington. Change was afoot here all offseason. The burst of success it brought in the opener has not yet been sustained. But on one sunny Sunday afternoon when fans could only watch from afar, you could allow yourself to think that this time, finally, the change might matter.