Our 2023 NFL Preview finally reaches its conclusion in the nation’s capital, where the Commanders look to begin a new era after the long-awaited sale of the historic franchise. Indeed, it has been a rocky few years for Washington, who have seen themselves officially shed their longtime moniker, the Redskins, in favor of the placeholder Football Team, only to unveil the Commanders last season. Now, with their record $6.05 billion sale to a consortium led by Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils Owner, Josh Harris, it feels like the club can finally begin anew. However, there are still plenty of questions that need to be answered in the meantime. After a mediocre three seasons in charge, will (Head Coach) Ron Rivera save his job? Has (new Offensive Coordinator) Eric Bieniemy been hired to eventually replace him? How will the situation at Quarterback play out? Will (Edge-Rusher) Chase Young regain his once-promising form? Let’s take a stroll through FedEx Field for a look into the Burgundy & Gold, shall we?
Know Your Bieniemy
During his three seasons in Wahington, Ron Rivera’s tenure has been mired by a mediocre offense that has gotten worse with each passing season. Part of the reason for their struggles has been instability at Quarterback, which is always a recipe for disaster in the NFL. Coming off a major leg injury, (former Pro-Bowler) Alex Smith was a shell of himself, while (journeyman) Taylor Heinicke was wildly inconsistent despite helping guide the team to the playoffs back in 2020. (Veteran) Ryan Fitzpatrick was brought in a year later to replace him, but only started one game due to an injury of his own, while the Commanders took a flier on Carson Wentz last season, only to see him benched in favor of Heinicke and later (rookie) Sam Howell. With the offense finishing twenty-fourth in points (18.9) and twentieth in total yards (348.6), Rivera opted to part ways with (Offensive Coordinator) Scott Turner and replace him with Eric Bieniemy, who had spent the previous five years coordinating the Chiefs’ explosive attack. Though he wasn’t calling plays in Kansas City, Bieniemy (pictured above) was nonetheless cited with the growth of the passing game and in turn (two-time MVP Quarterback) Patrick Mahomes, though unlike many of Andy Reid’s assistants, struggled to land anywhere as a Head Coach. Of course, Rivera is one of the many graduates from Reid’s proverbial coaching tree, reaching out to the 53-year-old for an opportunity to call plays for the first time in his NFL career and revitalize a sluggish offense in the process. With that being said, Bieniemy appears to have his hands full at Quarterback; Rivera and (General Manager) Martin Mayhew opted against chasing a veteran solution via trade or free agency, while proving unwilling to pay the steep price of trading up for one of the elite prospects at the top of last April’s NFL Draft. Instead, the former Tailback will oversee an open competition between Howell and (another journeyman) Jacoby Brissett. A fifth-round pick in 2022, Howell has a live arm and understated mobility, though lacks prototypical measurables for the position and much experience at this point. The 22-year-old started the season finale to middling results, completing 11-of-19 passes for 169 yards with a touchdown and an interception, while rushing for another score in a 26-6 victory over bitter rivals, Dallas. As for Brissett, the veteran finds himself on his fourth team in as many years, though has proven to be more than a capable starter when called upon, often serving as bridge to a younger Quarterback (as he did in Miami for Tua Tagovailoa), or filling the void for a Pro-Bowler, which was the case last season in Cleveland in place of the suspended Deshaun Watson. The 31-year-old is 18-30 all-time as a starter, tossing forty-eight touchdowns opposed to twenty-three interceptions. With Howell taking the majority of the first-team reps in Training Camp, it appears that Bieniemy has earmarked the North Carolina product as his preferred choice, though if things do in fact fall off the rails at Quarterback, Brissett should be able to steady the ship. Make no mistake about it, this is an important project for Bieniemy, whose work developing this attack outside of the security of Reid’s influence will go a long way towards securing the head job that he has been passed over so frequently the last few years. However, whether that be in the nation’s capital or elsewhere is anyone’s guess…
While the offense has struggled throughout Rivera’s tenure in Washington, the defense has thankfully been one of the better units in the league. Under the stewardship of (Defensive Coordinator) Jack Del Rio, they have finished within the top-three in total defense twice in the last three years, while ranking no worse than seventh in points allowed in those respective campaigns. In 2022, the Commanders yielded 20.2 points per game (7th Overall) on 304.6 total yards (3rd Overall), including 191.3 versus the pass (4th Overall) on 5.8 net yards per attempt (10th Overall), along with another 113.3 against the run (11th Overall) on 4.4 yards per carry (16th Overall). Furthermore, no unit was better on third down, where they permitted a success rate of just 31.9%, while proving nearly as tough in the red zone, where they shipped a touchdown on 51.9% of their opponents’ attempts (8th Overall). The strength of this group is easily the Defensive Line, which packs both quality and quantity; (Defensive Tackles) Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen combined for NINETEEN sacks and THIRTY-SEVEN QB hits en route to each player being named to the Pro-Bowl, while (Edge-Rusher) Montez Sweat added another eight sacks and a team-high twenty-eight hits off the flank. However, it stands to reason that they could be even better with the healthy return of their brightest star, (fellow Edge-Rusher) Chase Young. The second overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Ohio State product was a wrecking ball in his first season, totaling 7.5 sacks, twelve hits, and twenty-four pressures, along with four forced fumbles and a touchdown return on his way to winning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Unfortunately, he would tear both his ACL and patellar tendon midway through his sophomore campaign, effectively sidelining him until the final few weeks of the 2022 season. Interestingly, Rivera and Mayhew opted against picking up his fifth-year option, meaning that the 24-year-old will be playing for a new contract this Fall. Granted, the logic here is sound, as the Commanders are banking that Young (pictured above) will be motivated to secure a lucrative payday, which should in turn make this defense even more formidable. If he happens to struggle out of the gate, then don’t be surprised to hear his name bandied about at the Trade Deadline. In the meantime, if he can return to his rookie level of play, his presence should have a ripple effect on the rest of a unit that is considerably less stable on the back end, where the Secondary is littered with question marks. With all the havoc created up front, you would think that Washington would have logged more than a paltry nine interceptions (28th Overall), but that was the case last year, which in all likelihood informed their decision to select (Mississippi State Cornerback) Emmanuel Forbes sixteenth overall last April. The All-American was a bonafide ballhawk during his time in Starkville, logging FOURTEEN interceptions with six returned for touchdowns over the course of three seasons. While that playmaking will certainly be welcome in the nation’s capital, Forbes was viewed by many as a reach due to his slight frame (6′-0″, 180 pounds), particularly during combine workouts where he weighed in at just 166 pounds. Washington doubled down on Defensive Backs with their next selection, picking (Illinois product) Jartavis Martin forty-seventh overall, which should tell you what they think about their Secondary. Of course, if the aforementioned Young returns to wreak havoc in the trenches, then their transition should be a relatively smooth one.
Ron’s Last Stand?
Among NFL Head Coaches, you will have a hard time finding an individual more respected than Ron Rivera, who has quite a career in the sport. During his collegiate days at Cal, he earned Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1983 and was one of many players on the field during The Play. He was later drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1984, with whom he would win Super Bowl XX a year later serving as a rotational Linebacker and Special Teamer, becoming the first player of Puerto Rican descent to win a Lombardi Trophy. He would eventually join Andy Reid’s initial coaching staff in Philadelphia, where he would spend the next five seasons before returning to Chicago as their Defensive Coordinator, helping lead them to an appearance in Super Bowl XLI. Five years later he became the Panthers Head Coach, only the second in NFL history of Hispanic descent, winning three NFC South titles and a trip to Super Bowl 50, earning a pair of NFL Coach of the Year awards to boot. Furthermore, this is a man that has weathered the storm of cancer, undergoing a seven-week treatment prior to the 2020 campaign, losing over thirty pounds yet missed just three practices with his team. However, Rivera (pictured above) is just 22-27-1 (.450) in three seasons in Washington, with nary a winning season to his credit. Sure, he guided them to an NFC East title and Wild Card berth in 2020 at 7-9 during the wild COVID-19 campaign, but how often does something like that happen? While coming off an 8-8-1 record in 2022, there is an argument to be made that the team on the field is heading in the right direction, though given the sale of the franchise, the writing may very well be on the wall for the 61-year-old. In sports, new ownership often leads to new hires, as they look to install their own figures in positions of authority and influence. At this point, the aforementioned Harris may have other parts of the franchise demanding his attention at the moment, but it is hard to fathom Rivera surviving another sub-.500 season. As we covered earlier, hiring Bieniemy to be the Offensive Coordinator was a bold move, not necessarily due to the impact that he is expected to have on that side of the football, but due to the threat that he could pose to Rivera. In effect, he hired his potential replacement. For a variety of reasons, Bieniemy failed to land a head coaching job despite plenty of interest over the past few seasons, with his arrival in the nation’s capital creating a scenario in which he could find himself being groomed to take over for Rivera. Stranger things have happened, folks…
Projected Finish: 7-10
After failing to make the playoffs for a second consecutive season, the sale of the franchise has created some legitimate buzz and good energy in Washington for the first time in well, quite a while. The acquisition courtesy of Harris and his partners should lead to a bold new era for the team, with perhaps a new stadium and hell, maybe even another name change on the horizon. However, in the here and now, the team on the field looks to be on the precipice of transition. As we stated earlier, new owners oftentimes prefer to install their own guys, shedding any vestiges of the incumbent regime along the way. This likely will spell the end for Rivera in the nation’s capital for a variety of reasons. His team is the least talented in a stacked division, while still having serious questions to answer at Quarterback. He also has a younger, offensive-minded assistant that has been courted by many different teams running the attack now, serving as his potential replacement. If the Commanders prove to be mediocre once again, he’s gone. With that said, if the offense shines under Bieniemy and Howell looks promising, then the case to give the OC a promotion to ward off competition from other teams only gains more traction. It’s our opinion that given the strength of their schedule, particularly down the stretch, that this season will ultimately serve as a prelude to change, with a different staff leading the Commanders next season, though whether or not Bieniemy will be heading it is up for debate.