Alex Smith-Led Washington Is NFL's Unlikeliest Playoff Team, Could Play Spoiler

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJanuary 4, 2021

Washington Football Team's Alex Smith passes during the second half of an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)
Derik Hamilton/Associated Press

Led by quarterback Alex Smith, the Washington Football Team claimed a playoff spot Sunday night with a sub-.500 record. 

Ron Rivera's squad managed a 20-14 victory over the tanking Philadelphia Eagles and improved to 7-9 overall while cementing an NFC East crown.

Starting with the near-implosion of the franchise at the ownership level, which remains an ongoing issue, the entire organization has been in flux.

In July, Washington fired director of pro personnel Alex Santos and assistant director of pro personnel Richard Mann II after an extensive report about sexual harassment came to the forefront. Out of those moves and Bruce Allen's dismissal months earlier, the franchise made an inspired hire by bringing in Jason Wright as team president. 

"He is a proactive and assertive advocate for inclusion of all people and will set new standards for our organization, and for the league," majority owner Daniel Snyder said in a statement at the time of Wright's hire. "There could not be a better duo than Jason Wright and Coach Ron Rivera as we usher in a new era for Washington Football."

Susan Walsh/Associated Press

For all intents and purposes, the Washington franchise has still been in a semi-constant state of upheaval since December of last season. 

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What Wright and head coach Ron Rivera have done is steady what looked like a sinking ship. But it certainly wasn't easy, and more changes are on the horizon. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport (h/t NBC Sports Washington's JP Finlay), Washington wants an "experienced" general manager to join the front office and help Rivera in his building process. 

Of all the flak the NFC East received this season, and rightly so, Washington made itself into a difficult out based on a few factors, which is exactly why the fighting Riveras shouldn't be viewed as an easy opponent for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the Wild Card Round next weekend. 

A commitment to the defensive line gives Washington a chance each and every week.

Take Sunday night's performance as an example. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Washington generated a 57.1 percent team pressure rate with four or fewer rushers against the Eagles. Defensive ends Chase Young and Montez Sweat combined for two sacks, 11 quarterback pressures and a fumble recovery. They are long and relentless working off the edge, and both can win their one-on-one matchups. 

On top of excellent edge-defenders, Washington features a stout defensive interior with Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen consistently holding the point of attack and creating some pressure. 

Derik Hamilton/Associated Press

Washington's defensive front provides the entire organization with an identity. It's the strength of the team and the best chance to push it beyond just a one-and-done playoff appearance, even against a talented Buccaneers squad. Like every other quarterback, Tom Brady doesn't like pressure in his face.

As a whole, the Football Team finished second overall in pass defense and total defense. The group is capable of taking over games if needed, but it's not the only reason for the squad winning five of its last seven contests. 

While defense may be the starting point for Washington, the offense received a significant boost with Smith behind center. That's the same Smith who required 17 surgeries on a catastrophic leg injury during the 2018 campaign, nearly died, didn't play for almost two years and dealt with calf issues on his surgically reconstructed lower leg in recent weeks. Yeah, that guy. 

The veteran's miraculous return is even more amazing considering everything went wrong for those in front of him on the depth chart. 

Kyle Allen suffered a season-ending ankle dislocation in Week 9. Dwayne Haskins Jr., who Washington chose with the 15th overall pick in the 2019 draft, bounced in and out of the lineup before the organization grew tired of his lack of commitment to his craft and the team and cut him last week. 

Smith wasn't supposed to see the field this season. He should have been a great story based on his resiliency and fortitude unto itself. His path reached mythic proportions when he was forced into the lineup and helped lead his squad into the postseason. 

The 36-year-old signal-caller isn't the quarterback he once was, but he provides Washington with an entirely different perspective thanks to his on-field leadership. He understands defenses and puts his unit in the right play based upon presnap reads. While Washington is limited in what it can achieve because of an overall lack of talent at the skill positions, Smith knows where to deliver the football in any situation. 

Derik Hamilton/Associated Press

Sure, his mobility is now lacking, which makes him a bit of a hindrance against pressure packages. At the same time, his decisiveness with the football can help generate yardage in most situations. It then falls on some of the squad's other skill-position performers to create when called upon. Running back Antonio Gibson, wide receiver Terry McLaurin and tight end Logan Thomas are capable options.

As the season evolved and others stepped to the forefront, Rivera continued to lead the way following his diagnosis of squamous cell cancer, for which he received his final treatment in late October. As Washington defensive backs coach Chris Harris told reporters at that time: 

"Seeing him go through what he's going through and still coming out here to work every day is inspiring. I told [the players], you don't have anything to complain about. You think you got it bad? You don't. We've got a head coach who's battling cancer and he's dedicated enough to where he does that and it zaps the living life out of him and he's out here with you guys every day as much as he can."

The resiliency found within this coaching staff and group of players should be considered inspiring.

Sure, it had help playing in the NFL's worst division. At the same time, Washington overcame a 2-7 start to the campaign. 

The playoffs are all about survival and advancement. On the gridiron, Washington has epitomized the former, and that could help key the latter with the division title secured.

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.