How Washington's Garrett Gilbert went from Patriots' practice squad to starting QB in five days

PHILADELPHIA -- The fairy-tale ending did not occur, so quarterback Garrett Gilbert went from potential one-night savior and Washington Football Team legend to a guy who simply endured a wild five days and almost pulled off the improbable. And it might have been both the beginning and end of his Washington playing career.

Gilbert stepped into a difficult situation against the Philadelphia Eagles, starting for a team four days after he arrived. Washington is fighting for a playoff spot and had lost its top two quarterbacks, starter Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen, to the reserve/COVID-19 list. Gilbert not only had to learn the playbook, he had to learn his teammates -- without spending time in the building as meetings were virtual.

"I'll be honest, it was tough," he said after Tuesday's 27-17 loss to the Eagles. "Having the masks back on, it is tough to see anyone's face to be honest with you and to put faces with names. It is not ideal."

Nothing has been ideal for Washington lately, thanks to a mounting injury list and a roster hit hard by COVID-19. It had 13 players and seven assistant coaches on the list, causing them to miss the Eagles game. Washington (6-8) now trails three 7-7 teams -- Minnesota, Philadelphia and New Orleans -- in the race for the seventh and final NFC playoff spot.

The good news is that when Washington travels to play the Dallas Cowboys (10-4) on Sunday (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), it expects to have Heinicke and Allen available. Washington also has Kyle Shurmur on the roster and Jordan Ta'amu on the practice squad. Shurmur has been on the practice squad since Sept. 13 and was promoted with Heinicke and Allen out. Ta'amu was signed last week.

It's uncertain what this means for Gilbert, who was signed Friday off New England's practice squad. In his second NFL start -- the first one occurred with Dallas last season -- Gilbert completed 20 of 31 passes for 194 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions on Tuesday. Last Thursday night, he was giving his daughter a bath; within a couple of hours, he was on a plane to Virginia, and five days later he was starting against the Eagles.

"Obviously, a little bit of a whirlwind. Less than ideal circumstances for all of the guys in there," he said. "Most of the guys I met less than 72 hours ago and there was a good level of comfort and communication in the huddle. That is a testament to all of the guys that prepared and took on a little bit of extra this week in terms of their role in the game plan and understanding that things are not going to be perfect."

Gilbert, who played for Washington coach Ron Rivera and coordinator Scott Turner when both were with the Carolina Panthers (2017-18), arrived in Loudoun County, where Washington trains, about 11:30 p.m. Thursday. He was on the practice field the next day, with the game at that point still scheduled for Sunday. Later that day, they learned it was moved to Tuesday. That gave him more time to relearn an offense he had spent two seasons playing in with the Panthers.

"I essentially got thrown into it on Friday right when I got here," Gilbert said.

On Sunday, Rivera had hoped to work on the timing of the passing game. Mother Nature intervened.

"The toughest thing was ... we had 25-mile-an-hour winds and that made it tough to get the timing down," Rivera said. "That was the only disappointing thing in terms of preparation."

Not everything was perfect against the Eagles, of course. Gilbert had not worked much with his new receivers. There were times, Rivera said, that he stared down a receiver, leading to a deflected pass, as on one quick hitch in zone coverage to receiver Terry McLaurin. Other times Gilbert didn't stick on a read long enough and perhaps missed a receiver breaking free.

But he also hit McLaurin for a 46-yard catch, leading to a field goal. Gilbert converted three third-down throws in the fourth quarter, the first of which was a 29-yard gain to tight end John Bates. Gilbert, rolling to his left on a bootleg action, threw back to the middle with a defender charging at him.

"I thought he gave a heck of an effort," Rivera said of Gilbert. "He made some good decisions and he delivered some good balls. His timing and rhythm was off a little bit, and it showed when we got in a couple of situations that he just hadn't had enough reps, but man he made some plays. He fought and he battled, and when a guy does that, you appreciate that."

McLaurin in particular has been used to quarterback changes since Washington drafted him in 2019. He has now played for eight different starting quarterbacks. But this was, by far, the most unique situation.

"For a guy to come from another practice squad to a team where you don't know anybody," McLaurin said, "sure, maybe you've been in the offense, but to come here midweek and be expected to not only start at quarterback but to help us try to get into the playoffs, it's nothing but respect for him. The way he came in, his energy, you felt that when he got here. He was good at communicating in the huddle, so it was challenging for all of us, but he did his job."