The Athletic (paywall)
This is familiar territory for the long-suffering fan base, but the late-July ownership change from Dan Snyder to a group led by Josh Harris eliminated the wash-rinse-repeat vibe. Those who think these closing games will be a brutal slog are not wrong — unless you consider them for what they are: The real start of the Harris era.
Howell continues to exceed preseason expectations — but the bar has now changed on two fronts.
It’s no longer a question of whether he can start in the league. Rather, does Howell have the goods to become elite or reach that “we can win with him” level occupied by Kirk Cousins, Ryan Tannehill and others in recent years?
Howell has a solid baseline with poise, mobility, grit and a talented right arm. We can blame some of the mistakes — 13 interceptions, holding the ball too long in the pocket — on youth. Combined with the 23-year-old’s minuscule contract — he has a cap hit of less than $1.1 million — Howell is worth projecting as QB1 next season.
But this is where the second change comes in. Suddenly, Washington is in position for the fifth selection in April’s draft and has one of the more challenging remaining schedules — there is a good chance the Commanders won’t be favored in any of them. That would give the team a chance to target any QB in the 2024 class with a small trade-up or perhaps by standing pat.
“I’ve already talked to all the defensive coaches, talked to the entire coaching staff, and then I talked to the defensive staff, then I talked to each defensive coach individually and talked about what I was looking for, what I want, what I wanted to get accomplished,” Rivera said.
Rivera did not delve into how things would look from a personnel standpoint with him taking on a larger role in the defense, but he did say “we’re going to do things differently though. I will tell you that much.”
As for how those changes are going to be implemented, Rivera said he will work with the staff, particularly Rodgers, on how to put the players in the best position to succeed.
“Richard will work with the defensive backs, but he’ll also work with me on some of the game planning issues as well,” Rivera said. “And then everybody else will remain in their positions as we go forward and see how these things go. We’re going to work today, we’ll work tomorrow, and we’ll talk about how we’re going to do things as a defense, and we’ll go from there.”
Whatever the changes, Washington’s last five games are going to be a challenge. They return home to take on the Miami Dolphins before heading to Los Angeles to play the Rams. That’s followed by the Jets on Christmas Eve, the San Francisco 49ers on New Year’s Eve and a home matchup against the Cowboys to wrap up the season.
“If you don’t change things, can you expect things to change?” Rivera said. “So that’s what I’m doing, to see if things will change.”
Bullock’s Film Room (subscription)
Breaking down Sam Howell’s performance in the Commanders loss to the Cowboys on Thanksgiving
Against the Cowboys, Howell completed 28 of 44 passing attempts for 300 yards with an interception. He also scored a touchdown that he ran in himself. Those stats aren’t exactly anything to brag about but I don’t think they provide the correct context for this performance. Howell had a lot put on his shoulders on a short week to try and deal with the pass rush of the Cowboys.
After a bumpy start with having to use his legs quite a bit, the offense settled down a bit and started to find a rhythm. Howell, like he has for most of the season, looked comfortable with the various quick game concepts the Commanders call each game.
Here are two examples of Howell finding first downs with quick game concepts. The first is a concept the Andy Reid coaching tree likes to call Missile. The concept calls for three receivers on one side of the field, with the inside receiver running a shallow cross designed to drag coverage inside with him and open things up for the slant from the slot. The outside receiver then runs what’s called a pirate or under route behind the slant. You can see Howell processing information quickly here, working inside to out as he progresses from the slot slant out to Dotson on the perimeter. He does so efficiently and gets the ball to Dotson for a first down.
On the second play of the clip, the Commanders run a twist on their normal slant-flat combination. Instead of just two receivers executing a slant flat, they have three receivers on the same side of the field. The two outside receivers, McLaurin and Dotson, both run slants while the inside receiver runs out to the flat. In the west coast offense, a slant-flat combination is typically called Dragon, while double slants are known as Lion. So when you combine Dragon and Lion, you get what the Reid coaching tree calls Monster. The Cowboys sink into Tampa-2 coverage, but the slot defender and the outside corner appear to play man. Howell looks outside at the snap and reads man, so fires the slant to McLaurin for another first down.
There are benefits and negatives to consider...
The Washington Commanders have improved in most significant offensive categories under Eric Bieniemy’s leadership.
This is true despite starting an inexperienced quarterback taken in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL Draft. This is true despite having one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. And this is true despite not adding any game-changing skill position plays on offense.
The Commanders’ points-per-game are up more than 1.5 points this year. Their yards-per-rush and yards-per-pass-attempt are up. In total yards, they have risen from a below-average NFL team to an above-average one.
Had Washington’s defense held each of their opponents to their season average points, the Commanders would be 8-4 instead of 4-8. I grant you, that is a somewhat specious statistic, but it is clear that the offense has not been the primary culprit in the team’s failure this year.
Bieniemy deserves credit for that.
Despite those solid numbers, Washington has regressed in several other areas.
The Commanders’ overall rushing totals are among the worst in the league. That yards-per-figure is inflated due to a relatively small sample size and several big scrambles. Washington is still not able to consistently generate yards on the ground.
Negative plays - especially turnovers and sacks - are way up. Under Bieniemy’s more pass-happy attack, Washington is committing almost half a turnover more per game this season, and are surrendering two more sacks per game. Those are huge numbers.
There is also the possibility that the Commanders’ offensive line is not quite as bad as it has looked - particularly in pass protection - but has been undercut by schemes that do not maximize protection. Therefore, despite quantifiable improvement, you could argue that Bieniemy is not maximizing the talent he does have.
Jahan Dotson has virtually disappeared. Curtis Samuel looked revived early in the season but that has not lasted. Promising youngsters like Chris Rodriguez Jr. and Cole Turner have shown brief flashes but have mostly been invisible.
How does Howell rank among other quarterbacks?
Nick Shook of NFL.com shares his weekly QB Index ahead of every week’s slate of games. He ranks all 32 starters from 1-32, and the rankings change week to week.
Where was Howell for Week 12?
Shook ranked Howell No. 16, down three spots from last week.
Whew, talk about highs and lows. Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first: Howell threw three interceptions against the Giants, with his last one — a pick-six — sealing the game. He appeared to be attempting to throw the ball away under pressure on that play. He took unnecessary risks on all of the INTs, a product of New York constantly harassing him with a ferocious front that doesn’t always produce but seems to show up against Washington. Howell did some good things, naturally, throwing a sharp touchdown pass to Jahan Dotson and scrambling for a gutsy touchdown run. But the bad outweighed the good, a rare result for a quarterback who seemed to be ascending prior to Sunday.
EDITOR’S UPDATE: Howell was held to zero TD passes in Washington’s loss to the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day, completing the Commanders’ only touchdown drive of the game with a ground score shortly before halftime.
Howell played well in the first half vs. the Cowboys. Unfortunately for Howell, Washington’s pass protection struggled to protect him in the second half, allowing the Cowboys to blow the game open. Howell’s lone turnover came late after the game was already decided.
The Washington Commanders honored the late great Sean Taylor on Monday, which marked the 16-year anniversary of his death.
Prior to the Commanders’ 45-10 Thanksgiving loss to the Dallas Cowboys this past Thursday, CBS played a touching video featuring Taylor’s daughter reflecting on the memories of her dad and what life is like without him.
Taylor, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, had an accomplished football career despite his early death. A star safety for the legendary Miami Hurricanes of the early 2000s, Taylor won a BCS National Championship in 2001 before being named a unanimous All-American selection in 2003.
He then went on to have immediate success in the NFL, tallying four interceptions, two forced fumbles and 76 total tackles as a rookie.
During his NFL career, Taylor played in 55 games while posting 302 total tackles, two sacks, eight forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, 12 interceptions and 41 passes defended. He was a two-time Pro Bowler and was named a second-team All-Pro in 2007 shortly after his death.
Podcasts & videos
Grant hearing Commanders players wouldn’t give Eric Bieniemy ringing endorsement for HC job
Episode 707 - Ron Rivera fires Jack Del Rio & Brent Vieselmeyer. Sean Taylor died 16 yrs ago today. Crazy how Washington hasn't been close to consistently good on defense since.— Al Galdi (@AlGaldi) November 27, 2023
Guest: @MarkBullockNFL. Great film breakdown of what went wrong w/ JDR & why.https://t.co/XVYiVXufb2
️Searching for meaning in the Commanders' final regular-season games and other stuff w/ @Coach_JayGruden. Roster evaluation. Sam Howell vs. QB prospects. Post-Jack Del Rio plan. Meddlesome owners (and why Josh Harris doesn't appear like one). More.https://t.co/RlwGhwpbY6— Ben Standig (@BenStandig) November 27, 2023
Thanksgiving and a ‘Mini-bye’ Week | The Gameplan with Ron Rivera | Washington Commanders
When you spend all those high draft picks and re-sign Daron Payen and Jon Allen and "you’re last in the league in defense, there has to be a scapegoat"@EBJunkies' take on the Commanders firing Jack Del Rio https://t.co/bKDkF5okB0— The Team 980 (@team980) November 28, 2023
NFC East links
Bleeding Green Nation
Philadelphia’s 2017 first-round pick has a new NFL home.
Derek Barnett was officially claimed off waivers by the Houston Texans after being waived by the Philadelphia Eagles late last week.
The Texans rank 17th in the waiver wire order (which mirrors the current 2024 NFL Draft order), so, 16 teams passed on claiming him.
In Houston, Barnett is reunited with former Eagles defensive line coach Matt Burke, who serves as DeMeco Ryans’ defensive coordinator. Barnett and Burke overlapped in Philly during the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Former Eagles assistants Cory Undlin and Dino Vasso are also on the Texans’ coaching staff.
Barnett is getting a much-needed fresh start in a new NFL home. It’ll be interesting to see how it goes for the No. 14 overall pick from the 2017 NFL Draft. Or it might not be if he’s just exactly who he was for the Eagles at the end of his Philly tenure.
NFL league links
The Athletic (paywall)
Some of the one-and-done firings were justifiable, others were not. But all reflect a common truth: Most NFL owners have no clue what they’re doing.
For all of their business success, many NFL owners have no idea how to run their teams, and in general they’re awful when it comes to hiring head football coaches. That’s why we see so many ill-fitting marriages, such fruitless efforts and short tenures.
Yes, there are some owners who know how to evaluate talent or can identify potential coaches with strong leadership, communication, organizational, motivational and strategic skills.
But the majority? Shoot. Most owners are nothing more than billionaires playing real-life fantasy football. They guess here, follow popular opinion there. Then they roll the dice and hope they’ve gotten it right.
Tepper perfectly embodies the problem with NFL owners. The highly successful hedge fund manager had learned a little about the league during nine years as a minority owner of the Steelers. But that knowledge obviously was limited, because in his six seasons as the Panthers’ majority owner, Carolina has exhibited not one ounce of the stability and shrewd decision-making for which the Steelers are known.
Tepper said he hired Reich in part because he wanted an offensive-minded coach married to that prized rookie quarterback, which wound up being Alabama’s Bryce Young. The owner didn’t want to risk hiring a defensive-minded head coach, whose offensive coordinator would shine and then promptly leave for a head coach job elsewhere and stunt the young quarterback’s development.
But here Tepper finds himself, pulling the plug on Reich’s tenure in-season and gambling on Young’s future regardless.
Tepper’s mistakes continue to mount, but by nature of the job, he has no one to answer to. He’ll simply pay Reich not to work and this offseason will write another check for a new coach with no assurances that said hire will fare any better than his two previous selections.
It’s the way of an NFL owner.
It’s rare, but most NFL teams would be much better off if their owners entrusted a sharp team president to run the organization, including the hiring of the general managers and head coaches and selection of players. If they could keep their fingers out of things and let the true experts work together without the threat of meddling or fear-induced power struggles, then maybe, just maybe, the owners would receive a greater return on their investments.
But “that’s no fun,” one AFC front-office exec said, when asked why so few owners utilize such an approach.