Washington’s 28th-ranked offense lacked an identity in 2020 because they were forced to make a change to their starting quarterback on six different occasions. Poor offensive line play presented a major problem for each of Washington’s quarterbacks. Dwayne Haskins was terrible. Kyle Allen was slightly better. But Alex Smith and Taylor Heinicke were the most successful because they were the only ones able to combat the pressure allowed by the offensive line.
Smith combatted pressure by implementing a quick-hitting passing attack that sought to get his pass catchers the ball with room to run. Heinicke used his mobility to escape the pressure and extend plays. With talented receiving backs, a strong tight end, and Terry McLaurin at their disposal, both had good moments. As a result, the Washington offense was markedly better in games where Haskins did not play.
This chart maps Washington’s offensive performance in games with Haskins playing 49% or more snaps (maroon line) versus games where Haskins did not see the field (yellow line). Outside of two really bad games, every time they fielded Smith, Heinicke, or Allen at quarterback, they were a better offense than in any game in which Haskins played.
Alex Smith did not often threaten deep but was at least able to move the ball up the field. His average depth of target (5.1) was significantly lower than any other NFL quarterback, but he completed a high percentage of his passes (66.7%). And more importantly, he had the 7th-highest yards after catch per completion (5.7). He tried to get the ball in the hands of his playmakers and with his elite accuracy he consistently put the ball in spots where the receiver had room to run after making the catch.
But the problem with any conservative offense is that defenses tend to catch on. If what an offense can do is limited and the quarterback only throws short passes, players in the defensive back 7 can crowd the line of scrimmage, shortening the field of play. As film accrues on an offense like this, it gets easier for defenses to have confidence jamming the receivers and keying in on the run.
*Omitted data points for CIN, DAL, and WAS, who all suffered key quarterback injuries that skewed second-half performance numbers.
This scatter plot shows each NFL team’s 2020 average depth of target (x-axis) compared to that team’s offensive improvement in Adjusted Rating from its first 8 games to its final 8 games of the season (y-axis). A negative number on the y-axis indicates a team that performed worse on offense as the season progressed, and a positive number on the y-axis indicates a team that improved. Offenses with a more conservative approach (lower ADOT) tended to perform worse as the season wore on. Specifically, although a high ADOT did not guarantee improvement, teams with an ADOT under 7.1 all performed significantly worse in the latter half of the season as defenses got wise to their scheme.
Late-Season Decline for Low-ADOT Offenses, 2020
|ADOT||# Teams||Avg. Difference in Adj. Rating|
|7.10 to 8.29||14||-1.28|
|7.09 or lower||6||-4.70|
While this may not be particularly helpful in predicting Washington’s success next season with gunslinger Ryan Fitzpatrick set to replace Alex Smith, this is a valuable lesson that can help predict which offenses may decline over the course of a season. And it helps explain what happened to the offense under Alex Smith in 2020, in the 7 games he started:
With talent at key skill positions, Washington’s offense played well below its potential due to poor quarterback and offensive line play. Washington won every game in which Antonio Gibson had at least 65 yards rushing in 2020. Unfortunately, he only did this four times. If they can bolster the line and establish him more consistently as a feature back in 2021, this offense can perform significantly better, provided they have a competent quarterback.
Washington’s 10th-ranked defense definitely held up better than its offense in 2020, but benefitted from a series of fortunate occurrences over the season that inflated perception and defensive numbers. They did get fairly good pressure with the defensive line and were okay against the run. But they were not particularly solid outside their front four and reaped the benefit of several key injuries to opponents and other fluky events.
They didn’t face Dak Prescott in either game against Dallas and even knocked out Andy Dalton in Week 7. The Cowboys finished the game with Ben DiNucci. The Bengals were beating Washington in Week 11 and had racked up 267 first half yards before Joe Burrow was injured early in the 3rd quarter. The Bengals were visibly deflated by losing their franchise player and gained only 24 yards in the second half with Ryan Finley at quarterback. Washington also overcame a 14-0 deficit against Pittsburgh in Week 13 only after several key injuries to Steelers. They won a game against San Francisco despite gaining only 3.1 yards per play (to the 49ers’ 4.5 yards per play) on the strength of two defensive touchdowns. And with the playoffs on the line in Week 17, they were famously gifted a win against Philadelphia because the Eagles had nothing to play for and benched Jalen Hurts for Nate Sudfeld in the second half.
These things do happen in football. Washington also suffered injuries and their defensive success should not be dismissed. However, it should be contextualized.
Washington tried to win on defense by getting to the quarterback quickly and ferociously, forcing sacks and mistakes. Predictably, two types of quarterbacks held up against this attack: mobile quarterbacks and smart passers with good vision and decision-making.
This chart shows Washington’s defensive Adjusted Rating against each opponent ranked by the quarterback’s season-long rushing total. Washington’s best performances came against immobile quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger (+0.80), Nick Mullens (+0.82), and Andy Dalton (+1.84). But Washington underperformed against Lamar Jackson (-0.25), Russell Wilson (-0.07), Kyler Murray (+0.02), and Daniel Jones (-1.24 and -0.41), who all finished top-7 in rushing yards among quarterbacks.
The chart also shows two outlier poor performances against immobile quarterbacks when they faced the Bucs and Lions. But Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford are both elite quarterbacks in terms of intelligence and experience. They handled the pressure by reading the defense, recognizing the weaknesses in the secondary, and taking advantage before the pass rush was a problem.
Overall, Washington effectively punished bad offenses but were exposed by mobile quarterbacks and some of the better passers in the league. Their defensive production was inflated due to their favorable schedule and weak division. On top of that, they benefitted from several in-game injuries and positive situations. But they are implementing the right approach to building a defense: develop young talent, starting with a pass rush. If they can continue to build out talent in the back 7, Washington can improve defensively.
Putting it All Together
- Opinions on Washington are split heading into the off-season so on balance they are fairly rated. Their defensive production in 2020 made them look like a team poised for success if they got consistent quarterback production. But this was a bit misleading due to their schedule and circumstances. While they should improve offensively, expect some defensive and schedule regression.
- Washington’s offense will likely benefit from consistency at the quarterback position. Their offensive identity shifted so much in 2020 that hard predictions for their offense will be difficult early in 2021.
- Expect Washington’s defense to outperform against inexperienced, immobile quarterbacks who are easily flustered under pressure.
- Be cautious putting confidence in Washington’s defense against mobile or elite passing quarterbacks until they can put together a strong performance defensively against a good team.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- With Ryan Fitzpatrick coming to town, Washington skill players should see a boost in production. However, Washington’s offense was at its best when converting high-percentage passes and letting receivers work after the catch. The coaching staff may need to implement a new scheme for Fitzpatrick (or Heinecke). This scheme will almost certainly benefit Terry McLaurin.
- Keep an eye on Washington’s offseason moves to see if they view Antonio Gibson as an every-down back. He was an excellent receiver in college but was often replaced by McKissic in 2020 in passing situations. If they indicate using him more as a pass-catcher, Gibson has elite upside in fantasy.
- Do not be afraid to play smart quarterbacks or mobile quarterbacks in DFS against Washington as a way to counter the narrative that their defense is strong, when in reality it has not proven to be successful against these types of players.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
In Week 12 against Dallas, Washington was inexplicably a 3 point underdog against Andy Dalton. Even factoring in the early Haskins performances, Washington projected better than Dallas according to my Ratings. Fully healthy and with Alex Smith orchestrating the offense, I expected them to have no problem moving the ball against Dallas. On the other side, I predicted Andy Dalton would once again succumb to the pressure because he is not an elite passer and is not mobile. I placed 4 Units on Washington as the underdog and they crushed Dallas, 41-16.