There’s a thing every NFL coach says at some point each season: Our first goal is to win the division.
Coaches say this when things are going great, as in, “we’ve achieved our first goal, and now it’s time to move to the next one, winning a playoff game.” They also say it when they’re in charge of a team in the 2020 NFC East, as in, “I’m not as bad at my job as it might seem, because we could still beat out at least a couple of other teams, because they’re really bad, too.”
Regardless, winning a division is a pretty big deal. First goal! Success! The rewards include a banner to hang and a playoff game to host, and even a bad division champ like 2010’s 7-9 Seattle Seahawks can end up winning in the postseason.
The strange thing is, though, the current division leader, and the only NFC East team that controls its postseason destiny, doesn’t seem to be having a super great time.
On Sunday, the Washington Football Team missed its chance to lock up to the East, falling to the equally flailing Carolina Panthers. The player most responsible for that failure was Dwayne Haskins, the guy Washington anointed its future franchise quarterback a little more than a year ago.
Haskins was fined by the team last week after being photographed maskless alongside strippers at his girlfriend’s birthday party. Against the Panthers, he got benched after throwing a pair of interceptions. And Haskins was released on Monday, with Washington choosing to dump its 2019 first-round pick and keep veteran Alex Smith, who almost lost his leg after a horrific on-field injury two seasons ago, and backup Taylor Heinicke, who before this month had most recently been employed by the XFL’s St. Louis BattleHawks, and who hadn’t been good enough to see the field for that team.
Washington, then, is in the strange position of still controlling its playoff fate—win against the Eagles on Sunday Night Football and they’re in—and being a disaster, even by NFC East standards. And making the playoffs will make it a whole lot harder for them to fix what needs fixing.
In the NFL draft, non-playoff teams get slotted in to make their picks before all the playoff teams. That means the NFC East’s shambling champion will have the No. 19 draft position this year, well after its equally needy division rivals and even after some good teams who were stuck in tough divisions, possibly including an 11-win team from the AFC.
And if you’re a rebuilding NFL team in need of a quarterback, you’d really hate to miss out on the top of this class.
This was always fated to be a special group of quarterbacks. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields were once 1a and 1b as high school recruits out of Georgia. Their names have long been penciled in atop this draft. Lawrence’s might’ve even been Sharpie’d in after his freshman season, when he led his team to a blowout win over Alabama in the national title game.
Lawrence and Fields have since been joined by BYU’s Zach Wilson. All three are likely to leave the board fast. Assume Lawrence is already spoken for by the Jacksonville Jaguars. The New York Jets could pick either Fields or Wilson, with the other perhaps going to the Atlanta Falcons, who have a chance to find Matt Ryan’s eventual successor.
This would still leave some possible first-round QBs for other non-playoff teams, among them Heisman finalists Mac Jones of Alabama and Kyle Trask of Florida, plus North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, who didn’t throw a single interception in his last full season, 2019. If this class had been less loaded with special QBs, it’s possible to imagine any of those three going No. 1 overall.
Maybe only one of those second-tier guys will be available by the time the NFC East champ picks at No. 19. Or maybe none. Or maybe NFL general managers decide they don’t like Jones or Trask or Lance as first-rounders anyway. Whichever NFC East team has to wait that long could be left with an unfortunate consolation prize, but that’s only an existential worry for one NFC East team.
The 4-10-1 Philadelphia Eagles are the only team in the division that’s already been eliminated, and they’re guaranteed to draft in the top 10. Thanks to the emergence of Jalen Hurts, they probably don’t need to pick a quarterback anyway. They’re just here to get reps and laugh at everyone else.
The 5-10 Giants also won’t be in the QB market, as Daniel Jones has been at least serviceable amid injuries. A division title would feel like something to build upon.
And the 6-9 Cowboys could simply decide to pay star Dak Prescott, whose season-ending injury was the biggest reason for their struggles anyway. Or Jerry Jones could watch his team in the playoffs and conclude he doesn’t need Prescott after all. Wise or not, Dallas might get some closure out of this whole mess.
So the only NFC East team that’s all but certain to draft a quarterback is the Washington Football Team. And here the WFT stands, on the verge of winning one of the least-coveted titles in pro sports history, a championship that could doom it to many more years of mediocrity.
Defensive lineman Chase Young, the likely defensive rookie of the year, is a bright spot, sure, and a testament to the value of high draft picks. (Washington picked Young with the No. 2 overall selection this April.) But look at Washington’s 2020: another QB discarded, a fourth losing season in a row, and likely a 15th straight year without a playoff win, all of it in service of Dan Snyder. The Washington owner was known as one of the worst people in sports even before recent news of the team paying $1.6 million to settle a sexual misconduct allegation against him in 2009. Even the Football Team’s most important move of 2020, the long-overdue removal of its racist nickname and iconography, was forced by sponsors, not by a temporarily redeemed Snyder.
After roughly two decades of fans calling for Snyder’s exit, he not only remains, but is poised to win a division championship and, if you like banners, a successful season. Hooray? Can anything spoil a party more quickly than knowing Dan Snyder is enjoying it?
Well, imagine this (exceedingly likely) scenario:
Washington wins the division and has to, yeeugh, keep producing Washington Football Team football content. Meanwhile, the rival Eagles, Giants, and Cowboys all get to stop playing football, all decide they’re happy with their quarterbacks, and all get to use top-10ish picks to meet other needs. So Washington not only misses out on all of 2021’s blue-chip QBs and possibly all of the second tier as well, but can’t start on the “meet other needs” thing until after all of its division rivals get their turn … and all for the crime of holding divisional tiebreakers.
When the Jets won a couple meaningless games in December and thereby gifted Lawrence to the Jaguars, that was indeed the kind of incompetence soufflé that Jets fans have come to expect. But what’s the punishment? The Jets still get an elite QB prospect. Wilson or Fields could end up just as good as Lawrence in the NFL, for all we know. Winning a couple games too many, falling one spot, and moving from 1a to 1b could end up being no big deal.
Winning one game too many and falling something like 10 spots, though? The Football Team winning the East in 2020 could mean the Football Team having to reboot yet again three years from now, not that there tends to be much noticeable difference between the beginning, middle, and end of each buffoonish era within the franchise’s Snyder epoch.
This means the most gruesome possible outcome of the 2020 NFC East would be the Football Team winning it. (When you put it like that, it’s almost like these other three teams colluded to ensure the detested Snyder’s latest mediocrity won the division, no matter what. You … you don’t suppose … do you?) And since 2020 can deliver only the most Pyrrhic of victories, I think we all know where this is going. Congratulations in advance to the Football Team on winning the division, meeting the first goal, and enjoying the fruits of a successful season.
What did it cost you, Dan Snyder? Everything.
And unlike Thanos, you didn’t even go .500.
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