The Athletic (paywall)
Turning around a 4-11 team is one thing. Fixing an organization deprived of sunlight for years under prior ownership is another. The blocking and tackling parts begin with determining who will make future calls on potential blockers and tacklers, along with the starting quarterback and likely the head coach.
But before Harris decides, outsiders are gauging what they make of the new owner as a leader and person, as well as his vision for the Commanders. Based on early reviews, his pursuits won’t be discounted or dismissed, unlike the previous ownership regime.
Claiming anyone who can own an NFL, NBA and NHL team simultaneously is “normal” by usual societal standards might be stretching reality. Still, several league sources described Harris as down to earth upon their initial connection. Others have been impressed with how the Chevy Chase, Md., native and his staff have conducted the transition. The 59-year-old owner, along with several partners, purchased his childhood team for $6.05 billion in July.
Harris participated in the NFL’s accelerator program, held earlier this month at the league meetings in Dallas. The program is designed for underrepresented front-office candidates to meet with high-ranking decision-makers. Harris was engaging in the meet and greet, per sources at the meetings.
“Josh Harris is an awesome owner,” texted one enthusiastic attendee.
The breadth of [VP of Football Strategy Eugene] Shen’s reach within a new front office is part of the outside Commanders’ chatter. His presence is viewed positively by others. Cunningham and Ravens director of player personnel Joe Hortiz overlapped with Shen last decade in Baltimore.
Bullock’s Film Room (subscription)
Breaking down Brissett’s performance against the Jets to show why the Commanders are replacing Sam Howell as the starting quarterback.
Brissett came in and showed off his veteran savvy by opening up throwing windows for himself.
This play is a variation of a stick concept. A stick concept has one receiver getting to about five yards of depth, sticking his foot in the ground and breaking off the route outside. Meanwhile, a second receiver runs underneath him to the flat, creating a natural pick against man coverage and providing nice route spacing against zone coverages. On this version, the Commanders have Terry McLaurin run a slightly deeper stick route, known as a branch route, but the idea remains the same.
Brissett immediately looks out to the flat as he drops back to pass. When he gets to the top of his drop, he has his whole body from his feet to his hips to his shoulders and even his helmet aligned to the flat route. Now these plays are often read outside in, meaning that flat route is the first read, but many quarterbacks might try to not be quite so obvious with the intent to go outside straight away in fear of leading a defender out there. Brissett, however, wants to do exactly that. He intentionally makes it look like he’s going to throw to the flat to manipulate the coverage. In doing so, he gets an underneath defender that should be sitting on McLaurin’s route to bite just slightly outside to the flat. This opens up a small window to McLaurin further down the field which Brissett is able to hit without really adjusting his body position too much.
Not only did Brissett open up a throw for himself by manipulating the coverage, he also created space for McLaurin to secure the catch and then look to pick up yards after the catch. McLaurin takes full advantage of that space, turning a seven-yard throw into a 29-yard gain.
In the seven drives Brissett has been under center, the offense has scored five touchdowns.
The concepts Brissett has run are the same as those Howell dealt with, but it’s clear how different the offense has looked with the former in the lineup. Most of that comes from Brissett being in the league for far longer with 48 starts over eight seasons. Nowhere is that clearer than in Brissett’s knowledge of the West Coast system. His familiarity with it goes back to his days with the Indianapolis Colts, where he started during the 2017 and 2019 seasons.
Those were also Brissett’s best seasons, combining for 6,040 yards with 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
Washington Post (paywall)
Rivera’s first pick, defensive end Chase Young (2020), will return to Washington for the first time since he was traded in November, and his last, corner Emmanuel Forbes Jr. (2023), will continue trying to climb back into the lineup after a disheartening start to his NFL career.
New starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett will try to rediscover wide receiver Jahan Dotson (2022), who has gotten lost in the offense for long stretches this year. The limited impact of linebacker Jamin Davis (2021), who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 13, speaks for itself.
While Rivera’s regime also has been uneven outside the first round, the early misses have played an outsize role in the Commanders’ disappointing season. There’s a connection between the underwhelming top picks and the units that torpedoed this year’s team, including the inconsistent pass rush and blown-coverage-prone secondary.
The most obvious and damaging miss is Young. The No. 2 pick was supposed to be a franchise cornerstone, an elite talent at a premium position. But after his rookie season, he didn’t live up to his potential for several reasons, including undisciplined rushing and a devastating knee injury.
In San Francisco, Young has been a rotational edge rusher behind star Nick Bosa. He has played 54 percent of the snaps, down from 73 percent this season in Washington, and shared reps with ends Clelin Ferrell, Randy Gregory and Drake Jackson. In seven games, Young has generated pressure at a great rate — 13.3 percent, according to the website TruMedia — but totaled relatively few splash plays: 2.5 sacks, one batted pass and one tackle for loss.
The Athletic (paywall)
Three years earlier, the idea of trading Young would have been absurd.
He not only was the No. 2 pick in the 2020 draft, he was a hometown kid who’d grown up 20 minutes from FedEx Field. Young quickly became the poster child for a new era under coach Ron Rivera, and after being named to the Pro Bowl and selected defensive rookie of the year in 2020, he seemed bound to become a fixture in the Washington area.
He was a must-have autograph for fans and the soundbite reporters couldn’t miss. Media graphics depicting the area’s top athletes slotted pictures of Young next to the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin, Nationals’ Max Scherzer and Wizards’ Bradley Beal. As fans returned to FedEx Field following the league’s 2020 COVID-19 season, Young’s No. 99 jersey was as prominent in the stands as the franchise’s historic names.
Multiple sources, however, shared that playing near his original stomping grounds proved to be a hurdle from the jump.
“I think the worst thing that ever happened to Chase was getting drafted at home,” said Fred Smoot, a longtime NFL cornerback and Commanders analyst. “The talent is undeniable, but being at home, in his backyard, that kind of stunted his growth.”
Washington’s defensive potential seemed unlimited with Young, the fourth lineman selected in the first round of four consecutive drafts and a popular locker room figure. Expectations turned up even more when that unit fueled a late-season rally that thrust Washington to a surprising NFC East title.
But despite the team’s success and Young’s rookie-year accolades, there already was an undercurrent of discontent when the 2020 season ended. As Rivera discussed the team’s potential in the summer of 2021, a specific concern rode shotgun.
Rivera avoided dropping names at that point, but the quiet part unsaid was the coach primarily fretted about Young. The pass rusher spent a chunk of his offseason away from the team, choosing to train out west and participate in the TV game show “Family Feud” and film commercials afforded by his new level of fame.
Young was the only Washington player to skip all voluntary workouts, including mini-camp. Talk of him and Sweat aiming for the single-season franchise record for sacks by a duo became a training camp topic. But when the season began with a 2-6 record, the chatter turned to why the defense was floundering.
When asked if his offseason choices contributed to his slow start, Young responded, “I was making money, baby. Gotta make the money. None of y’all would have ducked the money. At the end of the day, it’s a job. You feel me? Just like y’all do your job, I do my job.”
Is there a worse team when it comes to finding first-round talent?
You could easily make the case that no team in the entire NFL has done a poorer job of getting value out of their first-round picks over the last five years.
Washington has had six first-round draft picks during that time. Three of them - Dwayne Haskins, Montez Sweat, and Chase Young - are no longer with the team. The Commanders have a second and a third-round pick in the upcoming draft to show for those three recent first-rounders. All three were released or traded before their rookie deals were over. That is terrible value.
The three remaining recent first-rounders - Jamin Davis, Jahan Dotson, and Emmanuel Forbes - have not performed anywhere near the level you would expect. The linebacker is the most productive, and also the oldest. Though a change in coaches could benefit him, I think we are seeing a largely finished product at this point. He is a fair NFL second-level defender.
Dotson and Forbes have been very disappointing in 2023. They are still young and perhaps that will change. But as we sit here today, Washington is getting virtually nothing from a lot of high draft capital.
Are there any other teams that have mismanaged their first-round draft picks as badly as the Commanders in the last five years?
1. They can rack up penalties at times.
The 49ers have a wide range of talent on their team, some of which have been up for MVP candidates this year like Christin McCaffrey or Brock Purdy. Last week, the team worked against itself with a significant number of yards sacrificed in penalties. During the 49er’s 33-19 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, they were called on 10 different penalties. This drastic number of offenses accounted for 102 yards against them.
Against a team like the Ravens, this was game-changing and ultimately led to a tough loss at home on Christmas Day. While the Commanders’ season has not gone as well as that of the Ravens, the large number of penalties is surely a consideration for Washington.
This can be beneficial for Washington on multiple fronts. The 49ers are one of the most penalized teams in the NFL, averaging 6.2 per game. They also lose more yardage from penalties than most teams, as they have given up an average of 55.7 yards per game (26th). The Commanders will need some lucky breaks to get an upset over the 49ers. If San Francisco plays as sloppy as they did against the Ravens, Washington will need to capitalize.
With Washington Commanders owner Josh Harris’ reported adoration of the Baltimore Ravens organization, he could target Mike Macdonald as the team’s next head coach if he moves on from Ron Rivera after this season.
If Harris wants to model the Commanders after the Ravens, hiring their defensive coordinator, Mike Macdonald, would be a pivotal first step in the right direction.
In a world where the top offensive minds are seemingly tabbed for every head coaching opening, Macdonald, 36, has asserted himself as one of the top candidates heading into the offseason. His name has become as hot as it has been after he led another defensive masterclass, as the Ravens’ defense shut down the San Francisco 49ers and has five interceptions in a 33-19 win on Christmas at Levi Stadium.
The 49ers (11-4) averaged 34.5 points per game during their six-game winning streak heading into the Monday Night Football matchup on Christmas.
The Ravens’ defense has been one of the best in the NFL since Macdonald became the defensive coordinator before last season. This year, Baltimore has allowed the fewest points per game (16.3) and led the league in sacks (54). In 2022, Macdonald’s defense allowed the third-fewest points per game (18.5).
Breer also noted that Harris could target Ravens Director of Player Personnel Joe Hortiz and Vice President of Football Administration Nick Matteo as potential candidates to become the Commanders’ next general manager if the Commanders fire Martin Mayhew.
“Maybe this means Harris tabs a Baltimore exec like Joe Hortiz or Nick Matteo to be his next GM, or a top Raven assistant like Mike Macdonald to be his head coach,” Breer writes. “Maybe it doesn’t. But at the very least, it brings a little insight into how he’s building and what he’ll be modeling after going forward.”
Podcasts & videos
New @TraporDive Film Session out now #HTTC— Jamual (@LetMualTellit) December 28, 2023
Breaking down key plays highlighting Sam Howell’s struggles against the New York Jets that led to Rivera’s decision to start Jacoby Brissett. Also highlight one play from Brissett that shows one of the major differences in where they… pic.twitter.com/azAXD7eFJ0
Episode 729 - What has happened w/ Sam Howell is the perfect exclamation mark to the No. 1 fail of Ron Rivera with Washington: never figuring out QB. I discuss this & much more off the change at QB1. #Commanders— Al Galdi (@AlGaldi) December 28, 2023
I also talk #ALLCAPS, Wiz, #Hokies & more.https://t.co/wn51OKAJ8Z
New Year Same Show with Nuggets to Striking Gold vs. 49ers | Command Center | Washington Commanders
Phillips: “Rivera Couldn’t Pretend Howell Gave Them A Chance To Win Anymore”
Jacoby the Starter!@ratedarmstrong & @bmurph13 give their thoughts on what this means for the rest of this season, Sam Howell and offseason plans.#HTTC— BLEAV in Commanders (@BleavCommanders) December 27, 2023
Presented by: @betonline_ag & @BleavNetwork https://t.co/clnXFGgaNV
The Washington Commanders came back from the holiday and began preparing for their Week 17 matchup against the San Francisco 49ers.
NFL league links
The Athletic (paywall)
Harbaugh’s credentials are complicated, high-ranking team executives around the league said. While he’s a proven winner who can create a strong culture in the locker room, Harbaugh has a reputation for having contentious relationships with front-office personnel, so team owners must balance the entire equation while determining whether he’s right for the job.
“He’s well-respected as a football coach,” said a team executive, who, like the other sources in this story, was granted anonymity so he could speak openly. “He’s won everywhere he’s been, but what comes with it?”
Harbaugh has leverage, assuming he isn’t worried about future ramifications from school and NCAA investigations. He has established Michigan as a consistent national powerhouse, and it surely appears he has the backing of the fan base despite the suspensions. Harbaugh could essentially ask for a blank check and personnel control.
“He can probably ask for whatever he wants,” the first executive said.
Harbaugh isn’t the most popular figure among NFL front offices, including personnel people and scouts. One high-ranking executive said, despite years of visiting Harbaugh’s college programs, the head coach never spoke to him.
“I would think he’s going to garner interest (this hiring cycle),” another executive said. “But the GM pairing will be important.”
Pro Football Talk
Next year, Christmas falls on the Wednesday between Week 16 and Week 17. The easiest way to make three Wednesday games work would be to give the six teams the prior weekend off, making the Wednesday games their Week 17 contests.
They’d play on Sunday, December 15. They’d play again on Wednesday, December 25. They’d finish their regular seasons on Sunday, January 4.
Yes, Week 16 is a late occasion for a bye. (Six teams off also could wreak havoc on fantasy playoffs, not that the NFL would care.) From 1999 through 2001, however, one team had its bye every week of the season, since there were only 31 franchises. Teams had early byes, teams had late byes. And the NFL kept going.
Another possibility would be to have the six teams set to play on December 25 play their Week 16 games on Saturday, December 21. The Saturday-to-Wednesday turnaround is no different than the weekly Sunday-to-Thursday formula. Those six teams would play a tripleheader on Saturday, against a different opponent than the opponent they’ll face the following Wednesday.
There are surely other ways to make it happen. Those are two fairly obvious ways to make it work. It’s unclear from the labor deal whether union consent would be needed to whatever approach the NFL would take.
Then there’s Christmas Eve 2024. Tuesday night. That one is even easier. Week 16 would be extended by a day, and the two teams that play on Tuesday night would play their Week 17 game the following Monday, possibly in a doubleheader that includes the two teams that would play on Monday night, December 23.