There is no point trying to sugarcoat it. My efforts to stoke the hype engine of Hogs Haven were dealt something of a setback by the Commanders’ failure to build on their spectacular first preseason performance when they faced Chiefs on Saturday. To be fair to our boys in burgundy-like red and white, it might have been unreasonable to expect a rebuilding team to come away with the win against one of the league’s modern dynasties, with Andy Reid playing the starters.
Any true champion should expect to face adversity on their rise to greatness. The test of a real competitor is how they respond to the challenges they encounter. I am here to tell you that, despite what you may have read about the game in the national media, and maybe even in the comments threads on Hogs Haven, perhaps from your coworkers in the office, and random acquaintances that know you are a Commanders’ fan, there was plenty to admire about how the team responded to the challenge of being outclassed in every facet of the game by a far superior opponent, and in the players’ and coaches responses to their own personal battles with adversity.
In this update, rather than focus on splash plays and gaudy statistics, I would like to shine a light on the Commanders football team’s battle with its own personal demons, on the field (Bill has provided comprehensive coverage of the off-the-field struggles), in their continuing preseason efforts to field a team that is capable of breaking through the seven-win barrier for the first time in Ron Rivera’s tenure as head coach.
Head Coach Ron Rivera
They say the fish rots from the head, so where better to start this weekly update on the Commanders’ inner struggle than head coach Ron Rivera? Just before the first preseason game, Rivera made the hard decision to fire long-time associate, defensive line coach Sam Mills, citing philosophical differences, and promoted assistant coach Jeff Zgonina to bring new energy to the position.
Following Saturday’s game, Rivera addressed the media and highlighted lack of rush discipline by the defensive line as a key issue contributing to the loss to the Chiefs. Some might suggest that this could mean Rivera fired the wrong guy. But that would be missing the point. The key point to focus on is that Rivera identified a problem and took decisive action to do something about it. Whether or not he did the right thing is just second guessing at this point.
This is the kind of decisive leadership that has earned Rivera the respect of his players and coaching staff. You can bet that his assistant coaches will be keeping a close watch on what the others are up to from now on, because anyone could be fired the next time one of them drops the ball. That is how you build a winning culture.
Carson Wentz came to Washington with a lot to prove to himself, his team, and the league in general, after fizzling out in Philadelphia and failing to gel with ownership in Indy. Despite his exemplary showing as a team leader since his arrival in DC, and his competent performance last week, the national media still don’t give him any respect. Witness this recent comment in NFL.com’s preseason division rankings:
Assuming this is directed at the starter, does anyone actually think that Carson Wentz is in the same category as Danny Dimes? Whatever his past indiscretions may have been, he’s not that bad. Well, aside from 2020 he’s not.
The national media are so biased against Wentz, that they completely overlooked two admirable qualities that were on full display against the Chiefs. The first of these is his clockwork-like consistency. In sharp contrast to the “unreliable” label bandied about by NFL.com, Wentz has been a model of consistency this preseason, avoiding the mistakes associated with his past “hero ball” playing style, to focus instead on reliable production from the short and intermediate passing game.
Just look at these numbers from the first two preseason games:
Panthers: 10/13 for 74 yds, 0 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 86.7 Passer Rating
Chiefs: 6/9 for 64 yds, 0 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 87.3 Passer Rating
He might not blow you away with a high scoring passing attack, but the Commanders’ Wentz avoids costly mistakes as he methodically works the ball most of the way down the field. I don’t want to get anyone too excited when I say this, but I am starting to think we might have found a worthy successor to the pre-injury Alex Smith, who led the Redskins on the legendary 8-3 run to start the 2018 season.
The second facet of Wentz’s game that’s not getting enough attention since the move to DC is his selfless leadership. One of the knocks on Wentz in Philadelphia was the rumor that he was a selfish player. A simple glimpse at those stat lines above tells a completely different story. The Washington version of Wentz doesn’t hog the spotlight by throwing highlight reel deep shots and running up gaudy score lines. Instead, he is content to distribute the ball and let his teammates enjoy their time in the spotlight.
Last week’s standout at QB was Sam Howell, making an NFL debut worthy of Russell Wilson. Howell’s breakout preseason performance led many in the fanbase to suggest that he had overtaken Heinicke for the primary backup position. If we know anything about Taylor Heinicke, though, it’s that he’s up for any challenge, and that he never quits a fight.
That gamer spirit was on full display in Kansas City, as TH4 fought back against the challenge from Howell, posting a sizzling 9/12 for 83 yds and a touchdown, to lead the team with an impressive 121.2 passer rating. Taylor provided one of the highlights of the game, when he and Cam Sims were both shaken by questionable hits on the same play, then paired up again two plays later on a 9-yard completion to end the first half. The battle for QB2 is running red hot heading into Week 3.
Howell came crashing back to earth this week, throwing his first NFL interception and taking two more sacks. Nevertheless, he continued to flash future starting potential, most notably on a 22-yard completion to Dax Milne in the fourth quarter to set up a Jaret Patterson score. Rumors of a QB controversy last week may have been premature. But trust me, it’s coming.
Another Commanders player who dealt with adversity last week and came back strong against the Chiefs was Antonio Gibson. In the first preseason game, Gibson was benched for coughing up the ball and found himself doing punt blocking reps in practice the following week. While Brian Robinson seems to be tightening his grip on the RB1 job, Gibson excelled in a new role in Kansas City, catching three of four targets for 37 yards, including a 22-yard pass from Tyler Heinicke to keep the scoring drive going at the end of the first half. This gave us the first glimpse of Gibson’s new role as the slasher in Scott Turner’s offense, which is bound to keep defensive coordinators guessing all season.
Did I say Brian Robinson? I don’t know about you, but I am starting to really enjoy watching him plow through defenders and drag them along as he tacks a few yards on the end of each run. His stat line of 8 for 31 doesn’t really do justice to the impact he had when he was on the field against the Chiefs. To paraphrase the great Jim Brown, when he got the ball he made sure to remind the defenders how much it hurts. The Commanders have found their power back.
If there is a position group that epitomized the Commanders ability to battle adversity on Saturday, it was the tight ends. To recap their struggles this season, heading into camp John Bates was slated to fill in as TE1 while starter Logan Thomas recovers from a torn ACL. Rookie 5th round draft pick Cole Turner came on strong in camp, and UDFAs Curtis Hodges flashed potential as well. Then Bates developed a soft tissue injury, followed by Cole Turner.
The first preseason game saw UDFAs Curtis Hodges and Armani Rogers carrying the load in place of the injured starters and backups, and Rogers lit it up. During last week’s practices, Hodges joined the walking wounded, leaving Rogers to start on Saturday alongside recent FA signee, Eli Wolf.
On Saturday, lightning struck again, and Rogers left the game early with an injury. In keeping with the Commanders’ next-man-up philosophy, Wolf stepped up to take his place, catching two passes on two targets for 25 yards.
Post-hype update: Wolf’s brief but illustrious run with the Commanders ended Monday, as he was placed on injured reserve. But just as the Commanders seemed to be running out of warm bodies to play TE, starter Logan Thomas was activated from PUP list and John Bates, Cole Turner and Curtis Hodges were seen practicing on the side field. The Commanders also claimed veteran TE Kendall Blanton off waivers. I hope he has good health insurance.
Speaking of battling adversity, the Commanders’ offensive line is so banged up, they started Saahdiq Charles and Aaron Monteiro at guard against the Chiefs. I didn’t even know Monteiro was on the roster before the game. Nevertheless, the ragtag band of misfits and castaways held their own. None of the quarterbacks were injured and the team managed to rush for an impressive 69 yards.
How much difference can a year make? Last year, at this time, it was an open question whether the Commanders had a legitimate starter to line up across from Terry McLaurin. Now they are spoiled for choice. There were so many outstanding performances from this group on Saturday that it’s hard to single anyone out.
For the second week in a row, newcomer Alex Erickson was the team’s leading receiver, with 3 catches for 44 yards, including a great run after catch effort for 34 yards on a pass from Howell in the 4th quarter. He had close competition from Antonio Gibson in his new role and Dax Milne, who he went 4/4 for 37 yards, including that 22-yard beauty from Howell. Cam Sims chimed in with two gutsy catches for 23 yards and Jahan Dotson finally showed up with an identical stat line to Sims. Curtis Samuel registered a stat for the second week in a row and Dyami Brown even managed to hold on to two of the six passes thrown his way for nine yards.
An outing like this demonstrates what a fantastic job the Commanders have done surrounding Carson Wentz with weapons. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see three Commanders’ receivers break the 1,000-yard mark this season.
I am pretty sure that the Commanders played defense this week, but I seem to be having trouble remembering the players that stood out on that side of the ball. Actually, it’s not that they didn’t play any defense. It just seemed that they took third downs off for most of the game. That’s probably a strategy to rest the players and avoid injury in the preseason. If that’s what it is, it’s just another example of Jack Del Rio’s innovative approach to coaching.
Now, after reviewing my notes, I can see there were a few defensive performances to get excited about.
DE Shaka Toney
When he wasn’t being escorted around the pocket or being rag dolled by offensive linemen, Shaka Toney became a one-man wrecking crew, living in the Chiefs’ backfield and registering 1.5 sacks, a tackle for loss and 2 QB hits. Some of us have been pounding the table for the Commanders to move him to linebacker. But on Saturday he demonstrated his value as a disruptive force heading up field. Maybe he just needs a few months in the strength and conditioning program and to eat a few more cheeseburgers.
Sadly, rising star Bunmi Rotimi left Saturday’s game with a leg injury and was placed on injured reserve, ending his season. As devastating a blow as that is to the Commanders 2022 campaign, I am hopeful that one of other DEs will rise up the depth chart to take his place backing up James Smith-Williams. Jacub Panasiuk made his bid for the position in KC, registering two tackles, half a sack and a QB hit. But don’t overlook Casey Toohill and Will Bradley-King.
DT Daniel Wise
Daniel Wise has continued his campaign to worry quarterbacks and earn himself a spot in the DL rotation. He registered a tackle and a QB hit on Saturday and generally looked menacing.
Fuller continues to demonstrate why he is one of the most underrated CBs in the league. On Saturday he broke up two passes and kept his receivers from getting up to much, aside from that one touchdown he let go.
And speaking of lockdown corners, did anyone notice any of the Chiefs’ QBs throwing passes into Christian Holmes’ coverage? Me neither. I think the Commanders could have a secret weapon in the secondary. Don’t tell anyone.
That’s it for the Week 3 hype update. I have absolute confidence that the coaching staff will learn from the things that went wrong on Saturday and make adjustments to put the team back in the W column and give me a lot more to write about next week. And more than that, I have faith that the Commanders’ players and coaches will continue to battle through adversity week in and week out, as they continue to build a winner in DC.
That just doesn’t look right.
Who will have a breakout game on Sunday in Baltimore?
This poll is closed
CB Christian Holmes
G Chris Paul
S/BN Darrick Forrest
WR Dyami Brown
S Percy Butler
DE Jacub Panasiuk
KR Antonio Gibson
S Steven Parker
LB Jamin Davis
TE Isaiah Likely