The Washington Commanders’ scheduling setup felt scripted.
Thursday night’s Week 5 home clash against the 0-4 Chicago Bears kicked off a three-game “winnable” stretch against teams with a combined 3-9 record. At 2-2 and coming off an overtime road loss to the reigning conference champion Philadelphia Eagles, the Commanders were supposed to give a national streaming audience the chance to gauge their progress five games into the franchise’s euphoric ownership change.
Instead of Washington’s first winning record after five games since head coach Ron Rivera’s hiring in 2020, the “as bad as it gets” 40-20 loss dropped the Commanders to 2-3. That meant instead of discussing positive signs before the Oct. 15 game at Atlanta, the chatter turned into near and big-picture questions about the franchise’s future, including why this fraught-inducing, overweighted portion of the script is repeating itself.
Sidebar: The Falcons, who beat the Houston Texans on Sunday, will be the 3-2 team this week.
Will any staff changes be coming out of this mini-bye evaluation period?
“No, no,” Rivera said in response to a question during a Friday video conference call. “(It’s) game five. We’ve got 12 left to play.”
The DMV had a sky-is-falling period in the hours following the shocking defeat. Washington’s flat start to its third consecutive loss — it trailed Chicago 27-3 at halftime — added to the gloominess. Limited partner Magic Johnson said on social media after the game that the team “played with no intensity or fire.”
Tonight the Commanders played with no intensity or fire. We didn’t compete in the first half and got down 27-3 heading into halftime. It was too big of a hole to climb out of and that is why we ended up losing 40-20.
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) October 6, 2023
However, making an in-season move at coordinator isn’t a snap-your-fingers scenario. Real-time play-calling requires experience or ample offseason preparation. Among the defensive staff, only coordinator Jack Del Rio has called plays previously. There is no assistant on the staff who is an obvious future coordinator now that former defensive backs coach Chris Harris works with the Tennessee Titans.
“There’s plenty of football left, and we haven’t had an opportunity to finish working on things that I talked about (after Thursday’s game),” Rivera said of pending evaluations. “We’ve still got several things to go through.”
Rivera, himself a longtime coordinator before being elevated to a head coach, called plays as recently as 2019 with Carolina. Don’t expect another turn with the large plastic menu board.
What are the chances managing partner Josh Harris makes a head coaching change before the season concludes?
The franchise sale in July came too late for Washington’s new owners to enact significant football change beyond basic support. The logical assumption is Harris will explore a fresh start this offseason. The truth is, there’s no rush.
Maximizing Sam Howell’s shot at QB1 is the primary football goal for this season. Ownership’s information-gathering process and ability to absorb everything being thrown its way is the off-the-field counterpart. Other than deciding how to proceed ahead of the Oct. 31 trade deadline — Washington’s list of 2024 free agents is lengthy and notable — Harris has time. He can spend weeks prepping for possible coaching/front-office changes in December or January, especially if he wants to beat other teams from publicly studying the market.
Reminder: Washington is 4-11 in Weeks 1-5 over three-plus seasons under Rivera. Midseason turnarounds come next (12-7 in Weeks 6-12). While a surge might be around the corner, finishing around .500 at the final bell is not a desired mark in Year 4 of a regime.
If Josh Harris brings ‘The Process’ to the Commanders, what would it look like?
Rivera’s contract runs through 2024, but new owners prefer making their own hires. A strong rebound or a first season with a winning record under Rivera (24-30-1 with Washington) might not be enough to keep him around. Del Rio is the only other former NFL head coach on staff and, therefore, the likely in-house interim option if ownership decides to replace Rivera before the season ends.
Eric Bieniemy is standing right there. Why not him?
Bieniemy is the Rivera replacement choice for a vocal faction of fans and analysts. The former Chiefs offensive coordinator has those two Super Bowl championships on his resume, assistant head coach in his current title and energy in abundance.
He’s also a first-time full-time play-caller still finding his way. Assigning head coach duties that include media and organizational obligations might be overload for what would likely be an interim offer. Harris would also have to navigate becoming part of the often-polarizing league conversation about Bieniemy having never been hired as an NFL head coach.
Indulge us. What might player personnel changes look like?
There was lots of talk about the difficult roster decisions before final cuts. Then, none of Washington’s released players were claimed on waivers. Cornerback Emmanuel Forbes is the only player from the 2023 seven-member draft class to garner a steady role (at least before Thursday’s benching). The Commanders leaned toward value contracts in free agency and overpaid based on initial results from the class headlined by right tackle Andrew Wylie and linebacker Cody Barton.
Overall, there are few apparent fixes available that offer overt upside or appeal beyond change for the sake of change, and that was before Washington sat Forbes. Despite one interception and a few coverage wins, the splash plays became the main image.
“The young man has a tremendous skill set,” Rivera said, “(but a) little all over the place with his technique.”
Forbes ended Week 4 allowing the most receiving yards by any cornerback, then surrendered 76 yards — 58 yards after the catch — on three receptions against the Bears. More jarring are the 173-pound defender’s limitations in the run game. PFF credits Forbes with 18 tackles and five missed tackles. The game tape shows a player shying away from full engagement. Two whiffs against Chicago led to significant gains — and the first defensive snaps of the season for sixth-year corner Danny Johnson.
“I think doing what we did with Emmanuel was kind of the indicator that we can’t go through this anymore,” Rivera said. “Now it’s time. We have to continue to put the guys out there that we believe are going to get it done the right way.”
Washington has yet to play second-round pick Quan Martin on defense. The safety selected with slot corner work in mind is another upside option at DB5. Rivera recently cited a playing-time roadblock because of other safeties on the roster. Some goodies exist, but that seems more like a cover for a slow adjustment period.
How about swapping out Barton and perhaps running mate Jamin Davis for other linebackers?
Here come the depth concerns.
Barton signed a one-year free-agent contract and has the speed to track down ball carriers. The every-down linebacker has labored when attacking run lanes — he’s tied for 42nd in average depth per tackle among linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus — and, at times, in coverage (11th-worst in QB rating against). The backup Mike linebacker, David Mayo, is limited to run-down work. Mayo and Khaleke Hudson have a combined one defensive snap.
While sincere, Hudson’s signs of growth this offseason are not enough to push out the athletically explosive Davis. Maybe Davis, Washington’s 2021 first-round pick, eventually replaces Barton and gets a second shot at being the primary signal-caller. Keeping the athletic force in the current attacking role seems like a better use of his talents.
If Josh Harris brings ‘The Process’ to the Commanders, what would it look like?
Get to the offense already …
Bieniemy’s orchestration remains fascinating. He guided the comeback surge in Week 2 at Denver, showed a more complementary run-pass ratio at Philadelphia than in the first three outings and warrants credit for helping Howell’s development. At other times, the plan feels stuck or carried over from the established Chiefs rather than maximizing the in-house personnel.
Howell now has six NFL starts/appearances. He’s rarely looked rattled, but gaining experience takes time. Yet Washington’s 115 first-half dropbacks led the league entering Sunday night. Trailing at halftime in four of five games isn’t solely or even primarily responsible for this usage.
Kansas City typically had complementary running backs. Brian Robinson is a true lead runner who ranks third among running backs in first downs per rush attempt at 31.3 percent, per TruMedia, and 11th in yards after contact per attempt (2.9) before Sunday.
All-world tight end/tabloid fave Travis Kelce pacing Kansas City’s receiving corps is logical. Not ideal is Logan Thomas averaging more targets per game (6.25) than receivers Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel. According to PFF, the yards per route run for McLaurin (1.48 vs. 2.04 in 2022) and Dotson (0.71 vs. 1.39) have declined sharply while talk of spacing issues increased.
The Commanders and their retooled offensive line have allowed 23 of their 29 sacks with five blockers. That 12.8 percentage of sacks per attempt/sacks with five blockers ranks 31st. The 2022 Chiefs, with three Pro Bowl offensive linemen, had a 3.9 percent sack rate and gave up 22 sacks for the season with five blockers.
Washington allowing an incredible 29 sacks could, in theory, lead to changes. Howell’s penchant for holding the ball in the pocket longer than desired contributes heavily to the sack total. With what he’s shown overall in five games this season, there’s no QB change on the radar. The issue with the line is there are no apparent changes to make.
Swing offensive tackle Cornelius Lucas showed he can handle starter duties based on his 27 starts since 2020. Handle doesn’t mean thrive. Perhaps Lucas replacing Wylie at right tackle leads to more stability, but a significant boost is unlikely. Moving starting guards Sam Cosmi or Saahdiq Charles back outside would be moving away from the likely better path for both.
(Photo: Greg Fiume / Getty Images)
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