I had the opportunity to ask 5 questions about the Washington Commanders to a writer from Football Outsiders, who recently published their annual Football Almanac for 2022. The section on Washington was written by Rivers McCown, and when you read what he had to say about the franchise in the almanac itself, it’s clear that he hates the franchise in general, and that he hates new Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz in particular.
Consider the first three paragraphs of McCown’s hit-job on the Commanders from the Almanac:
There are a lot of dysfunctional football teams in the NFL. The Jaguars have had a top-10 pick in all but one draft since 2007, and almost none of these players made it to a second contract with the team. The Lions haven’t won a playoff game since 1991. The Texans are the nouveau riche kids on the block, building a bland roster around the idea that a chaplain can pick the player characters that will do best. The Panthers treat quarterback searches like Bobby Hill with his father’s credit card.
“Forgotten” is a word that conveys a little too much insult to long-time followers, but the [racial slur redacted]
Football TeamCommanders are the current NFL dynasty of dysfunction, a stagnant swamp very much worthy of bearing the name of the nation’s capital. And because of how deep it runs here, it is probably a little overlooked in our Squirrel!-based media society. The Commanders haven’t won a playoff game since 2005 and haven’t had a point differential over +13 since 2012. Since Daniel Snyder took over the team in 1999, they have vacillated between spending extravagantly on big-name free agent busts and being so undesirable that nobody actually wants to join the team.
This year, they picked “being so undesirable that nobody actually wants to join the team.” The Commanders brought in three outside free agents before the draft—guards Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner and edge rusher Efe Obada. All three of those players were Panthers when Ron Rivera was in Carolina. Then Washington traded two third-round picks to Indianapolis for quarterback Carson Wentz and a swap of 2022 second-round picks. (One of those third-rounders could upgrade to a second next season if Wentz plays 70% or more of the snaps.) Wentz cost the Colts a playoff berth with two terrible performances at the end of the season, first falling to the Raiders in Week 17 after he missed a week of practice on the COVID reserve list because he was unvaccinated, then getting easily handled by the Jaguars to end the season. He was trashed out the door in Indianapolis in a way you don’t normally see teams trash a quarterback. (“I think the worst thing you can do is have a mistake and try to keep living with it going forward,” Colts owner Jim Irsay said. “For us, it was something we had to move away from as a franchise. It was very obvious.”) He also was given away by the Colts without any real plan at quarterback in a way that spoke to their desperation. Just one year after that same team gave up more than a first-round pick for him!
So, Rivers McCown of Football Outsiders is a guy who, to say the least, is not very positive about the Commanders or the team’s starting quarterback. Here’s a bit more about Carson Wentz from McCown’s article in the Almanac:
His penchant for making enormous mistakes created a lowlight reel that could hang with his disastrous 2020 season. There’s a YouTube video with “all of [his] lefthanded pass attempts” with the Colts that’s over two minutes long. Wentz was picked off on a shovel pass in the red zone against the Rams, and pick-sixed trying to throw the ball away in his own end zone when the Colts and Titans were tied in the fourth quarter. While playing through two ankle sprains early in the season, he moved like he was running in quicksand. Before the Wentz trade happened, Chris Ballard noted in his wrap-up press conference that “You’ve got to be able to get the ball out of your hands quickly. You’ve got to be able to get the ball out and take the easy completion when it comes, and that is a big part of Frank’s offense.” Wentz has been utterly unable to do that the past two years. He now plays quarterback like Elon Musk runs his social media.
McCown’s sarcasm and condescension were not all reserved for Wentz, however. He managed to extend his insults from Carson Wentz to the Commanders running backs, offensive line, and offensive coordinator Scott Turner, all in a single short paragraph:
The view with burgundy-colored glasses is that Washington will be able to run the ball enough to effectively keep Wentz dialed in on easier passes and keep him out of his own way. That’s certainly what they did in their best games of the 2021 season. From Week 4 to Week 13, the then-Football Team had just two weeks with negative pass offense DVOA. But they got there by running the ball as much as they could—they had 256 rush attempts and 258 pass attempts in that span. When it came to the passing game, less was more. But the truth is that not only is Jonathan Taylor missing from the Commanders roster, but so are Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, or Braden Smith. Offensive coordinator Scott Turner hasn’t ever had the talent to make it all work perfectly, but he isn’t in Reich’s universe as a playcaller either
The Almanac invests a half a page talking about Dan Snyder and his toxic workplace, and then seems for a moment to be ready to throw a hungry dog a bone by talking about the people working to improve things, but that dry bone never actually leave’s McCown’s hands, as he envisions the Washington franchise like a pool of quicksand from a bad 1960s Hollywood movie that sucks everyone to the bottom and their inevitable deaths.
In the worst institutions in this country right now, there are people fighting upstream against the current to make things better. That’s the role that these young Commanders are aspiring to fulfill as Young, Terry McLaurin, Montez Sweat, and so on try to drag this team into relevance. There are probably more than a few people that fit this bill in the current front office as well. But the institution almost always drags the promise down with them. And they overdraft players, and they trade for the wrong quarterback, and other players aren’t interested in playing here, and the stadium decays while the seats remain empty.
In a sense, McCown isn’t saying anything that Hogs Haven members don’t say every day; Dan Snyder’s organization is a 2-decades-long train wreck, but, as a fan, you always have to hope something will change. McCown is convinced it never will.
Part of the problem with being optimistic about Washington taking a step forward is that there’s no reason to be optimistic about anything that this team has done. That’s the toughest sell to a non-fan.
McCown rounds out his diatribe in the Almanac by renewing his vilification of Carson Wentz, who must’ve recently insulted McCown’s mother and kicked his dog.
[We have the Commanders] with one of the worst offenses in the NFL, because adding Wentz doesn’t bring much benefit. Our projection system sees a reasonable possibility that Wentz will regress towards his abysmal 2020 performance combined with a reasonable possibility that the Washington offense as a whole will regress to past performance, when they ranked in the bottom five for offensive DVOA in 2018, 2019, and 2020. Curtis Samuel’s theoretical health and a big rookie season from Dotson would help, but neither of those things can be known at this point.
Asked about being sent to Washington in his introductory press conference, Wentz said “to feel that I’m wanted here and people believe in me and support me, I think it’ll be a great situation to flourish.” Wentz has been one of the most publicly naive players in the NFL for years, to the point where he always seems surprised when things don’t go the way they were supposed to. (That it ended so soon in Indianapolis “definitely surprised” him.) When you strip out money, the desire to win, and the respect that comes with those two things, what are you left with?
All the organization has to offer its players is the ability to make them feel wanted. And that’s the naked truth of what the Commanders have become under Snyder.
The 5 Questions
I had not seen McCown’s article in the Almanac before I was invited to send him 5 questions about the team, so I naively asked him to tell me what a good season from Carson Wentz would look like, not realizing that McCown didn’t have it in him to answer such a question.
What’s the best-case scenario for Carson Wentz in 2022?
The best-case scenario for Carson Wentz is that the team is able to run the ball effectively enough to Colts-ify him, and that he hits an inordinate amount of downfield throws with Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson. I don’t know if you meant this question to be a statement of value or a statement of results – I took it as results – but I don’t think there’s really much masking the fact that Wentz is not a franchise quarterback at this point. I expect the Commanders will come around to this sooner rather than later and try to keep him from destroying himself. But that has proven to be something that many other smart head coaches could not do.
I particularly love the part where McCown uses the phrase “keep him from destroying himself” in answering a question about Wentz’s best-case scenario. I’m glad I didn’t ask him to address the worst-case!
I would also be intrigued to see the list of “many other smart head coaches” who failed to save Wentz; from memory, I can only think of two head coaches in his pro career.
I confess, when I wrote the question, I thought that the data-driven Football Outsiders would probably include some projected statistics and deep analysis from their supercomputer to add some of the unique value that FO prides itself on, but I guess the opportunity to smear Wentz with a couple of generalized swipes at his ability was more temptation than McCown could resist.
I stayed with player analysis in the second question. With the general positivity about the prospects for Washington’s offense that I see here on Hogs Haven and from Commanders fans generally, I was genuinely interested in how an objective professional analyst sees the likely contributions of Washington’s two new young offensive playmakers, selected in the 1st & 3rd rounds of the 2022 draft.
What impact do you think the two offensive rookies, Jahan Dotson and Brian Robinson, will have on the offensive production in 2022?
Trying to pick what a rookie wideout will do with opportunity is rough, but I think Dotson should have a productive first season. I expect Robinson to get pigeon-holed into a grinder role even though he shows enough talent that he could be more than that. Washington’s backfield is just too talented and stacked at the moment. I expect it’s more likely that neither has a major impact on the offense because of circumstances beyond their control – Scott Turner wants the behind-LOS screen game to work and the organization is paying Curtis Samuel to do that. I think it’s more likely that we’ll see someone write the “The Commanders wasted Jahan Dotson’s rookie season” article than the “Dotson wins offensive rookie of the year” article.
Once again, I was a little surprised that this answer was a bit more like a blog comment than the type of data-driven analysis that I had expected, but at least it avoided the kind of exaggerated narrative-driven vitriol that the question about Wentz had prompted. You’ll see the kind of data-driven answer I was expecting here when you read the answer to Question 4.
While I have sensed a certain level of consensus in the fan base’s expectations for a much-improved offense (which led to Questions 1 & 2), I have witnessed a lot of division in opinion about the offensive and defensive coordinators.
With respect to Turner, some fans seem to lay the lack of offensive production at his feet, while others defend his creativity and playcalling and say that he’s never had the roster — in particular at the quarterback position — to run his offense.
Believe it or not, most Washington fans were pretty excited about Jack Del Rio when he was hired, and he got a reasonable amount of praise for the defensive performance in 2020, especially in the latter half of the regular season. Last year’s defensive results, of course, were putrid.
Similar to the previous question, I thought it would be interesting to get the perspective of an objective (football) outsider on these two coordinators, given the wide diversity of opinions they have generated among the Commanders fan base over the past two seasons.
What is your evaluation of the Commanders’ offensive and defensive coordinators (Scott Turner and Jack Del Rio)? How do they stack up against their NFL peers?
I don’t really know what to make of Turner. I don’t think the screen-heavy focus works in today’s NFL, but I’m also not sure that he’s ever been given an offensive roster or quarterback that I would call good or even a good mesh for how he calls plays. This is probably the closest to it we’ve got, and he’s still going to be relying on Carson Wentz. I’d like to see him call plays somewhere else and see if anything changes. But I’m not high on him.
Del Rio’s had an interesting career – he’s the kind of guy you want to write off as a dinosaur, but then all of the sudden there’ll be the one year where everything just clicks and the defense is good. He had that year in 2020, and before that he had years like it in Denver and Oakland. I wouldn’t call him a star defensive coordinator, but I don’t think he’s overmatched at his job.
In a recent poll, Hogs Haven asked readers what factor, other than quarterback play, would be most critical to the outcome of the 2022 season. The response from readers was unambiguous — the defense is the most critical factor. So, I asked the Football Outsiders writer about the defense.
Washington’s defense was among the league’s best in 2020, but among the league’s worst in 2021. What do you expect from the Commanders defense this season?
This is a big part of our main essay on the Commanders but they had the worst third-and-fourth-down pass defense DVOA in the NFL, and teams that do that tend to bounce back in a pretty big way. But the tricky part of that is that those teams tend to make wholesale changes at defensive coordinator and/or talent, and the Commanders … did not do that. They brought back their seven most-played defenders in 2021 and are relying on depth or youth that was already here in the 2021 to take major steps forward. And, of course, Del Rio is still here. Objectively on the pure numbers, they should improve. Color it with the subjective feelings on what happened this offseason and we’re less sure.
As McCown says in this answer, the article on the Commanders in the Almanac spends a lot of time on this topic and provides more detail. When I asked the question, I hadn’t seen the Almanac; now I have.
Here’s some more detail from his main article to color in McCown’s answer a bit:
The major reason to be optimistic about Washington is regression. On paper, the 2021 Washington Football Team defense was held back largely by one thing: a complete inability to stop the pass on third downs. They allowed a 48.5% conversion rate on third downs, second worst in the NFL. Once we add in fourth downs and account for the yards needed to convert each of these plays, Washington ended up dead last in defensive DVOA on third and fourth downs at 33.1%. Specifically on third- and fourth-down passes, their 48.2% DVOA was nearly 10% worse than the No. 31 Jets.
The history of recent pass defenses this bad on third and fourth down includes a few Washington defenses (Table 1). The track record suggests massive regression for this unit next season—in a good way. The last 12 units to play this poorly on third- and fourth-down passes were much better the following season. The average team had negative DVOA against thirdand fourth-down passes the next year. Even the worst-case scenario in Table 1 cut DVOA allowed nearly in half. Most of these teams also saw their overall defensive DVOA improve significantly.
However, pass defense this bad also typically creates change. Nine of the 13 teams on Table 1 fired their defensive coordinator, but Jack Del Rio is still here. Terrible pass defense on third downs also usually leads to massive roster turnover. The 2021 Raiders, our most recent example, traded for Yannick Ngakoue and Denzel Perryman, signed Gerald McCoy and Casey Hayward, and drafted Nate Hobbs and Trevon Moehrig. McCoy only played nine snaps due to injury, but of the seven Raiders defenders with the most snaps last season, five were brand new.
In contrast, the Commanders will return their seven defenders with the most snaps last year to starting roles. Landon Collins (eighth) and Matthew Ioannidis (ninth) left in free agency, and some of their snaps will in theory be replaced by better health for the injured defenders from last year. (Chase Young’s return is a reason to believe in improvement, yes.) But on paper this is the exact same defense as it was last year with second-round Alabama defensive tackle Phidarian Mathis filling in for Ioannidis and some projected improvement by 2021 first-rounder Jamin Davis replacing Collins. For the most part, the same young players will be backed up by the same depth. And when you look at the teams on Table 1 that didn’t make changes versus those that did—the 2020 Texans couldn’t make many changes because of the Laremy Tunsil trade, for instance—the improvement regression could offer feels more capped.
When it came to the final question, I wanted to go a little off-script and ask McCown to make a projection that is a bit outside the scope of the Almanac. Once again, in formulating the questions I wanted to ask, I tried to think about topics that readers on Hogs Haven have addressed themselves to this offseason. One of the most common topics over the past few weeks has been Ron Rivera’s apparent lack of action to sign any veteran free agents in the wake of Terry McLaurin’s extension.
I wondered if Football Outsiders saw it the same way most Hogs Haven readers did. Staying on brand, McCown couldn’t help being a bit of a smart ass, but, in the end, he expressed a view that is consistent with that held by a lot of Hogs Haven readers.
What single free agent signing (or trade for a veteran player) could Washington make between now and Week 1 that would have the greatest positive impact on the season?
The temptation to bullshit this question and just say “Aaron Rodgers” or something is so great. OK, I would feel a lot better about the Washington defense if they had the same sort of EDGE depth they had in 2020 or someone I could point to at linebacker and say “that’s a potential impact player.” I know he was hurt last year and it’s always tricky to judge what that means for 2022, but Alexander (A.J.) Johnson would give the Commanders a boost inside at linebacker. I would also welcome someone like Carlos Dunlap to be a rotational EDGE guy.
The comments about the linebacker spot are entirely consistent with my own thoughts and those that I see from Hogs Haven members on a regular basis.
I am, however, a bit puzzled by his reference to EDGE depth in the 2020 season, when Young and Sweat were backed up by 32-year-old Ryan Kerrigan, Ryan Anderson, James Smith-Williams and Nate Orchard. When I look at the current depth of Smith-Williams, Efe Obada, Casey Toohill, Bunmi Rotimi and Shaka Toney, I don’t see it as a step back from 2020 in anything but name-recognition. I’m not suggesting that the DE depth chart can’t be improved; it certainly can be. I’m just a little puzzled at seeing the 2020 season used as the benchmark to suggest that this year’s depth is noticeably weaker.
So, there you have it — the Commanders according to Rivers McCown, who won’t be sending in his membership dues for the Carson Wentz Fan Club this year.
Putting the slanderous scribblings of Rivers McCown about Snyder, Wentz and the Commanders aside for a moment, the Football Outsiders Almanac is, in fact, otherwise a quality publication. It’s 539 pages of football talk backed by advanced statistical analysis. There is detailed information about individual players, as well as deep analysis of each team’s offense, defense, special teams, coaching, and other factors, and the Appendix section provides detailed stats about skill players intended to help fantasy football owners figure out what to expect in terms of production in the coming season.
If you’d like to get a look at the kind of player analysis that’s available in the Almanac, take a look at this article that I published about two weeks ago:
If you are interested in getting your own copy of the Football Outsiders 2022 Almanac, you can visit their website (https://www.footballoutsiders.com/subscribe) or you can get the book through Amazon (https://a.co/d/3fzpGZv). By the time the regular season starts, you’ll be the most informed NFL fan in your neighborhood.