Lombardi: Are the Washington Commanders ready for battle?

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One of the benefits of driving across the United States is being able to visibly attach something you’ve long read about with an actual place.  Driving east on Interstate 70 past Columbia, Missouri, there is a sign that says, “Fulton, Missouri, the home of Westminster College.”  It’s the kind of mundane exit that sits in between the many Love’s and Pilot Flying J’s truck stops.  Yet, Westminster is different.  History was made there when former Great Britain Prime Minister Winston Churchill, after being removed from office by the 1946 election, then traveled to this small midwestern town to deliver his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in March of 1946.  Why would Churchill go to Fulton?  Simple. They asked, and he said yes.  As I drove around, my mind wandered to the many wonderful Churchill quotes, and one came to mind, which reminded me of the Washington football team as they prepare for a new owner and the 2023 season: “I pass with relief from the tossing sea of Cause and Theory to the firm ground of Result and Fact.”  The relief the organization will receive when former owner Daniel Snyder is gone should give them better results, and the facts are simple, The team is more talented than the 6.5-win total (understanding you must pay some juice on the over) that has been posted. 

Before the draft, my concerns about the Commanders centered on two things—their leadership on the field and their quarterback.  Head Coach Ron Rivera hasn’t had a winning record since 2017.  He has only three winning seasons during his 12 years as a head coach—which is solid evidence to wonder if he is the right man for the job.  And let’s be honest, if it weren’t for the turmoil and sale, Rivera might not have returned for his fourth season. As much as the Snyder dysfunctions have caused problems for everyone, Rivera has benefited.  He is viewed as the stable voice in a very unstable environment.  Coming off the bye week last year with a 7-5-1 record, the Commanders then lost three games in a row—turning the ball over seven times in those three games and only creating one turnover.  They went from a surefire seventh seed to watching, and even Rivera didn’t know they had been eliminated from playoff contention.  With second-year quarterback Sam Howell being named the starter for the upcoming season after appearing in only one game during the ‘22 season, there must be doubts about his readiness.  You wonder why the sportsbooks have the Commanders so low in wins?  Because win totals are usually about the competence of the Head Coach and the quarterback. In DC, both are huge concerns.  And as unproven as Howell is entering the season, my lack of faith in Rivera is stronger. 

Washington does offer some strengths to suggest they might be a team to consider for an over win total play.  First and foremost, removing Snyder is a huge benefit that cannot be overlooked.  The Snyder noose around the franchise’s neck made playing at home uncomfortable.  What once was the hardest place to get a road win has become one of the easiest.  RFK stadium would rock—and the fans would make it hard for the opponent.  Now, the opponent’s fans dominate the dumpy Fed Ex field and fans don’t care.  Maybe they will this season.  Washington played defense as well as any team in the NFL last year.  They addressed their weaknesses in the draft by selecting Emmanuel Forbes—a ball-hawking corner who can create turnovers, something the Washington defense couldn’t accomplish.  They only had nine interceptions for the entire 2022 season, and they allowed 16 completions of over 40 yards— worse in the NFL.  Drafting Forbes and Illinois safety Jartavius Martin should help correct these problems.  They added a potential starting center in Ricky Stromberg in the third round which should help their offensive line.  These picks along with adding starting right tackle Andrew Wylie from the Chiefs should help correct their team need concerns. 

If Washington is competing for a playoff spot in eight months, then Sam Howell and new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy have clicked.  Bieniemy gets his first chance to run an entire offense without interference from anyone. It’s finally his show.  He will install the offense, call the plays and make the adjustments as we all know Rivera never involves himself in play calling, only fourth down decisions.  (What does he do all game besides stand there stoically?) Washington has an elite group of playmakers—from Terry McLaurin to Curtis Samuel and the ultra-talented Jahan Dotson.   Add in tight end Logan Thomas and Bieniemy has enough skill to score points.  Washington lacks an elite running back—even though Brian Robinson and Antonio Gibson are functional, they could help Howell’s development by adding a big-time runner—perhaps Dalvin Cook?  Add Cook to this team and they are legit—assuming Howell and Bieniemy can mesh.  Why didn’t Washington trade for D’Andre Swift?  Had they offered the same deal as Philadelphia, Swift would be in DC since everyone assumes for good reason the Eagle pick will be lower than Washington.  Clearly, Rivera and the crew don’t believe they need a playmaking back, even though when J.D. McKissic was playing well, Washington was a better offense.  Now McKissic is gone, and who is their change of pace back?  Opportunity missed by the Commanders. 

The true strength and one of the major reasons anyone would be inclined to invest in the over is the Washington defense and their ability to match up against the better offenses in the NFL.  With Aaron Rodgers moving to the AFC, the strength of quarterbacks in the NFC has been reduced. Therefore, outside of Philadelphia and Dallas, does Washington face a great NFC team?  They have the Cardinals, Falcons, Bears and Rams on their schedule which they should handle.  They face the AFC East, which will be a tough division but their defense is good enough up front to create problems versus any offense.  They need to create turnovers.  Of the 18 turnovers created, four came against Philadelphia, as Washington held the Eagle offense to 94 yards rushing and 170 passing.  When the defense can get the ball out, they win.  In six of their eight losses, the defense didn’t force a turnover—hence the reason for the Forbes pick.  If they get the ball out, then this defense can play against anyone. 

For all the positives about Washington, the theory of them being better, I can’t get past some of their decision-making to endorse the over total.  I don’t have confidence in their ability to recognize the problems and then solve them. They watched quarterback Carson Wentz destroy their season last year—and went back to him late as if he would rekindle his 2017 magic which has been long gone.  Under Rivera’s direction, Washington appears too content, too relaxed, and there is no sense of urgency to solve the issues.  They rely on patience and time to run their course, hoping for relief, when in reality the facts are not supporting their conclusions.  All during the 2022 off-season, everyone who closely examined their roster knew their offensive line was a problem, yet they ignored the obvious and the results proved to be correct.  Their actions make the Churchill quote so true. 

Count me out on playing the over win total.  But don’t count me out on them being better than their record—they have too good of a team not to win seven games.  I’m just not interested in betting on Riverboat Ron bringing it all together.