LANDOVER, Md – The 2015 NFL season has ended for Washington. But it was quite a start.
The games are over, but they represented a new beginning in Ashburn. Players and coaches don’t like to accept such consolation prizes after a loss. But no matter what happened in Sunday’s game against Green Bay – which the Packers won, 35-18 – there would be no reason for dropped heads in lockeroom.
“I’m very proud of these guys, and it’s still a sick feeling any time you lose a game at the end of the year, no matter when it is,” Washington coach Jay Gruden said. “With the opportunities that we had out there today, it makes you ill. But with the guys battling the way they did, I’m very proud of the guys and I like the future of this football team.”
There’s no shame in losing a playoff contest against an MVP-winning quarterback such as Aaron Rodgers. He hadn’t looked like himself for most of the season but regained his form when it mattered most, after the Packers fell behind, 11-0.
There’s no disgrace in being out-smarted by a Super Bowl winning coach such as Mike McCarthy. Green Bay lost four of five games during one stretch and closed the regular season with back-to-back defeats, but McCarthy had his team ready for red-hot Washington. He called the right plays and exploited the right match-ups as the Packers rallied for 17 unanswered points before halftime.
When Kirk Cousins came out for the first drive after intermission and engineered a five-play, 73-yard touchdown drive – scoring on a perfectly executed quarterback draw to recapture the lead – there was a sense of more to come. But it never materialized.
Washington even failed to score a meaningless touchdown that would’ve made the final score more respectable. Cousins was sacked on fourth-and-goal from Green Bay’s with 2:46 remaining. On their next possession, facing fourth-and-17 from Green Bay’s 24, they turned it over on downs with 13 seconds left.
But the outcome was decided long before then, with two-thirds of the crowd already on the Beltway or in the parking lots. The diehards who remained until the clock hit 0:00 saluted the team as it departed, knowing that good seeds were planted in 2015 and a harvest can be expected next season.
However, the season that just ended bore considerable fruit as well. When we look back at 2015, we’ll see a clear line of demarcation, the point where Washington left the realm of comical dysfunction and began to resemble a serious, solid organization putting key pieces in place.
They were evident all over the field. Cousin’s emergence has become a national story, but he’s a greybeard compared to some of the pups general manager Scot McCloughan uncovered in his first season at the helm. On offense, rookies Jamison Crowder, Brandon Scherff and Matt Jones played critical roles in helping Cousins develop. On defense, rookies Preston Smith, Kyshoen Garrett and Quinton Dunbar showed promise.
Green Bay delivered an important lesson on postseason football, on focusing, adjusting and capitalizing. Washington wasn’t ready to take the next step in an improbable and totally unexpected season, but it’s closer to the goal than it was last August.
“It stings right now,” Gruden said of the loss. “But I think we’re building something good here. We just have to keep our heads up. I told the young guys and the veteran guys here that we’re on the right path. We just have to work a little bit harder and coach a little bit better.
“But, I’m proud of the fact that these guys fought through a lot of adversity throughout the season. We’ll get some guys off IR next season and get ready to roll.”
They seemed ready at the outset, especially defensively. They scored a safety and held Green Bay to 11 yards in the first quarter. They had Rodgers feeling pressure both real and imagined. It didn’t help matters that they settled for a field goal after DeSean Jackson’s touchdown catch was reversed on replay. But that wouldn’t have made a difference based on Rodgers heating up and the defense having no answer.
He led the Packers on 80- and 76-yard scoring drives on their initial possessions after intermission, picking up where they left off in the first half. They also got the ground game going, gaining 124 or its 141 rushing yards in the second half.
In the end, Green Bay was too much for Gruden & Co. Too much Rodgers, too much McCarthy, too much experience. Just like the Packers predicted, they were a different team once the postseason began.
Though Washington’s four-game winning streak was snapped, it really wasn’t much different on Sunday than it was down the stretch.
But compared to what it was in August, when Cousins was named the starter, and in October, when Tampa Bay enjoyed a 24-0 lead, the team has gigantic strides. A first-round playoff loss doesn’t change that fact. And it doesn’t change the outlook moving forward.
The ride ended sooner than anyone wanted, but 2015 was a welcome beginning