I think most people are aware of the “How it started; how it’s going” meme that has been popular on social media for a while now, but for those who don’t spend much time on Facebook and Twitter and therefore may be unfamiliar with it, let me introduce the meme by way of examples. I think the pattern will be quickly obvious.
This article is the first of a two-part ‘series’ that looks at Washington’s NFL team through the lens of this popular meme.
So, let’s look at how it started.
Click here to read Part 2
The Washington Football Team, January 2022
On the field - Jan. 10, 2022 - Met Life Stadium
The 4-12 Giants just ran a very obvious QB sneak on third-and-9 in the second quarter of Week 18.— Pete Hailey (@PeteHaileyNBCS) January 9, 2022
I’m in awe of how sad this is pic.twitter.com/4fLaHuyYDi
On third-and-9 from their own 4-yard line, the New York Giants ran a second consecutive quarterback sneak. After the game, Giants head coach Joe Judge defended and explained his decision. Ultimately, this play may have sealed Judge’s fate. He was fired by the Giants the next day.
Prior to this game, Judge had made a reference to a ‘clown show’ organization with players fighting on the sidelines — an obvious reference to Jonathan Allen taking a swing at his good friend Daron Payne on the sidelines in the middle of a Washington Football Team game earlier in the season.
After securing the Week 18 win against the Giants, Ron Rivera addressed those comments from the Giants head coach.
“He didn’t know what our guys were going through. To make a comment like that was unfair. People don’t understand [that our players have been] going through an awful lot in a short period of time.”
Washington had started slowly in the 2021 season, but, with a four-game midseason winning streak, had put themselves in a position to qualify for the playoffs as a wild card team, or potentially even win the division title.
But the wheels came off in four division games played against the Cowboys and Eagles — a stretch in which the team went 0-4, including one spectacular 56-14 road loss to Dallas. By the time the Washington Football Team was facing the infamous third-and-9 QB sneak by Daniel Jones, the burgundy & gold looked like a Shelby GT500 that Marshawn Lynch had driven home from a party.
As the head coach intimated, his team had been through a lot. While the home loss to the Cowboys in Week 14 was disappointing, it was really just a loss, though one that came after injuries had claimed RB J.D. McKissic and TE Logan Thomas from an already depleted roster. The big issues began in the days to follow — there were three that I want to talk about:
COVID: The attack of Omicron
The Omicron variant eventually ripped through most NFL rosters, and the league responded by changing many protocols to get through the end of the season intact. Washington had the misfortune of being among the first three teams to get hit hard by the new variant in the lead-up to the Week 15 game. Despite the game against the Eagles being postponed, the Football Team entered the contest with 13 players and seven coaches ruled out due to COVID, including both the primary and secondary quarterbacks, Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen. Street free agent Garrett Gilbert was signed during the week and started at quarterback after a quick introduction to his new teammates.
While Week 15 was the most severe COVID impact of the season, the roster continued to be impacted by the virus until the end of the season three weeks later.
The “COVID game” against the Eagles was played on Wednesday, December 22nd.
On Thursday, Dec. 23, Washington safety Deshazor Everett wrecked his car, tragically killing his girlfriend, Olivia Peters, 29, who was a passenger in the vehicle. The investigation determined Everett was driving over twice the posted 45 miles-per-hour speed limit just before the crash occurred, and in February he was charged with involuntary manslaughter. In March, Everett pled guilty to a reduced charge of reckless driving, and he is scheduled to be sentenced in Sept. 2022.
There should be no doubt that this tragic event affected the team deeply, casting a pall over the remaining days of the 2021 season.
Anthony Sweat, brother of Montez Sweat, was killed in a shooting in Henrico County five days later, on Dec. 28. With the season unraveling on the field, the killing of Anthony Sweat at the hands of Shon Bloomfield, who was charged with second-degree murder, was a second brutal tragedy — one that followed quickly on the heels of Olivia Peters’ death.
Far too much was happening in the non-football world of the players for them to be focused on finishing out a lost season and winning football games. The Football Team was emotionally shattered as they played out the string, and the fact that the Football Team came out of MetLife Stadium with a win to close out the season is really an indictment of the level of disarray that had overtaken the Giants under Judge.
The Washington Football Team had sputtered to a fairly ignominious end to its short two years of play under Ron Rivera.
“How it started” on the field of play
In short, at the point in time when we start our clock on “how it started” with the Week 18 game in New York, the then-Washington Football Team was not even a shadow of the squad that had won four straight games against the Buccaneers, Panthers, Seahawks and Raiders. The team had been badly affected by COVID in Week 15, and then emotionally brutalized by two tragic deaths that bracketed Christmas and trivialized the game of football.
During the final four games of the season, there were plenty of reasons why the Washington Football Team was no longer the team it had been during its November winning streak, but the fact is, the team that took the field for Ron Rivera in those final five NFC East games that closed out the 2021 season was playing terrible football.
Following the season-closing win against the Giants, the Football Teamers came to Ashburn to clean out their lockers.
When that was done, there were 50 guys under contract for the 2022 season, but with some huge roster holes to fill.
At the quarterback position, Washington had only one player under contract — the 2021 backup Taylor Heinicke, a journeyman and former UDFA who had a great Cinderella story but too many physical limitations to provide the foundation of a championship team. Heinicke was also under contract for only a single season.
Clearly, the team needed to acquire a veteran signal caller or draft a top rookie quarterback — maybe both.
Safety & Buffalo Nickel
Washington had no true free safety, and the team’s Buffalo Nickel had been manned by Landon Collins, who was playing on a premium-dollar contract and unhappy about being asked to effectively play as a linebacker in the defensive scheme. Most observers believed that Collins would be cut by the team before the ‘22 season began (Spoiler alert: they were right).
Going into the offseason with only Kam Curl and Darrick Forrest to man three positions did not inspire confidence.
The coaches had seemingly mishandled first-round pick Jamin Davis in 2021 by asking him to learn an entire NFL defense and play the MIKE position instead of his natural spot at weakside linebacker. It had not gone well.
The team had Cole Holcomb returning and he had played well in both the 2020 and ‘21 seasons, but with questions surrounding Davis, and very weak depth behind the two presumed starters, Washington appeared primed to sign a veteran and draft a rookie to enhance one of the weakest units on the depth chart.
Washington had only one proven healthy threat at the wide receiver position — Terry McLaurin — and he was entering the final year of his rookie contract. There was no guarantee that he would want to stay in Washington or that the front office would do what was necessary to keep him.
Curtis Samuel, who had been one of two headline free agent signings in 2021, had barely seen the field, losing almost his entire season to a mysterious groin injury, followed by a hamstring injury. There wasn’t (and still may not be) a lot of confidence among Washington fans that he would ever be the healthy offensive weapon that was imagined when he was signed to a three-year, $34.5m contract.
All of the remaining wide receivers on the roster were unproven or came with significant questions or concerns. This was another position group in need of dramatic reinforcement ahead of the 2022 season.
Tight end and defensive end
The issue with both of these position groups was not so much lack of talent, but significant injury. Both Chase Young and Logan Thomas had suffered season-ending knee injuries a month apart that involved ACL tears and more. The timing and severity put both players in doubt for the start of the 2022 season.
At tight end, Ricky Seals-Jones had been on a single-season contract, meaning that the only healthy tight end with an NFL reception remaining on the roster was 2021’s fourth-round draft pick, John Bates, who had handled 25 targets as a rookie.
Whether through free agency or the draft, depth was needed at both offensive and defensive end positions.
The 2021 running back depth had been tested by a string of injuries to Antonio Gibson as well as a fumbling issue that affected him during 2021. Following the Week 18 game, third-down back J.D. McKissic, who had been one of the team’s most productive players before being lost for the season following a neck injury & concussion, became a free agent, and Washington’s running backs room, consisting of Gibson, a third-year converted receiver out of Memphis and 2021 UDFA Jaret Patterson out of Buffalo, looked like it needed help.
Washington’s secondary had struggled early in the ‘21 season, but had looked like they were starting to figure things out later on. With veteran CBs Kendall Fuller and William Jackson still under contract, and rookie Ben St-Juste showing development, the roster appeared to primarily need CB depth added in 2022, which could probably be taken care of with mid-tier free agents and mid-round draft picks.
It wasn’t hard to feel good about the offensive line as the ‘21 season ended. Sure, it seemed likely that Brandon Scherff would leave in free agency, but he had been hugely expensive, frequently injured, and the team would likely be awarded a third-round compensatory pick when he was signed by another team. His backup Wes Schweitzer had filled in admirably when Scherff was injured and was considered by most observers to be a capable starter at all three interior OL positions.
There had also been injuries to C Chase Roullier and rookie RT Sam Cosmi during the ‘21 season, but both were expected to be healthy for the start of the 2022 season. Ereck Flowers had a big cap hit ($10m) but he had played well, and I think most fans assumed that the team would either extend him or renegotiate his deal. In something of a surprise, Flowers was ultimately released just prior to the start of the new league year. Swing tackle Cornelius Lucas was a pending free agent, but it seemed reasonable to think that he could be re-signed or replaced with a similar quality player.
Tim Settle was entering free agency, but with Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Matt Ioannidis still under contract, Washington still had one of the better groups of DTs in the league. In a move that surprised a lot of people — including, apparently, the player himself — the front office cut Ioannidis just before the start of the new league year, and suddenly the depth that had been such a strength for the Football Team didn’t look so hot for the Commanders. It seemed likely, however, that they could count on a returning backup like Daniel Wise or David Bada (who landed on the practice squad), and keep the pipeline full by using a mid or late-round draft pick on a developmental DT.
Kicker Joey Slye was a pending free agent; he needed to be re-signed or replaced.
Washington’s MVP and longest-tenured player, punter Tress Way, was under contract, as was rookie long snapper Cameron Cheeseman.
It was widely expected that the team would re-sign specialist returner Deandre Carter, who had been signed to a one-year contract for 2021 and had pumped some much-needed life into the return game, but Carter signed with the Chargers.
“How it started” - the roster
Following the end of the Giants game, expiring contracts and injuries had left holes all over the roster.
The single biggest hole was clearly at quarterback, and the question on every Washington fan’s lips throughout the balance of January, February and the first week of March was: How will Ron Rivera solve the quarterback issue?
In addition, the team had obvious needs at safety & buffalo nickel, wide receiver and running back, and injuries raised concerns about the tight end and defensive end positions.
The 2022 roster, as it stood at the end of the Giants game, was non-competitive and needed a huge amount of work. Once you account for players who were released by the team in early March (Flowers, Collins, Ioannidis), the roster appeared even more Swiss-cheese-like as the new league year approached, although Washington had significant cap space and eight draft picks to work with.
When it comes to win projections for 2022, DraftKings has set the magic win total for the Commanders at 8.
Click here to access DraftKings.
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Check out Part 2 to see what moves the Commanders have made this offseason to bolster the roster in an effort to achieve that winning season and get to the playoffs.