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Under Eric Bieniemy and Sam Howell, Commanders’ offense is still struggling

Under Eric Bieniemy and Sam Howell, Commanders’ offense is still struggling

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The Washington Commanders’ big bets on offense have gone bust. It’s hard to untangle exactly why the unit has been so bad over the past four games — how much blame to give offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy vs. quarterback Sam Howell vs. the supporting cast — but it’s clear it’s not working. There’s little reason to suspect the unit will meaningfully improve over the final three games against elite defenses.

Even though Coach Ron Rivera said he benched Howell in the fourth quarter Sunday to protect his health and even though Rivera stressed that Howell will remain the starter, the move put an exclamation point on an abysmal month. Before Sunday, there were plausible reasons for the struggles on offense: The Commanders had faced tough pass defenses, and their own defense kept putting them in holes nearly impossible to dig out from.

But the 28-20 loss to the Los Angeles Rams was different. The Rams’ defense is below average overall and particularly weak against the pass. The Commanders’ defense was strong in the first half and gave the offense a chance. Yet the offense was sloppy and ineffective; the team went to the locker room down 13-0.

Washington was only the seventh team in the past decade to win the first-half turnover battle by two or more and still trail by 13 or more points at halftime, according to the website TruMedia.

“If we knew what the issue was, we’d fix it,” Howell said of the offense’s stumbles. “What it comes down to is we just have to execute better, and that starts with me.”

Last offseason, Rivera sifted through the problems that torpedoed the 2022 offense — quarterback, coordinator, line — and bet on Howell, Bieniemy and a budget line that several analysts said gave the team a “razor-thin” margin for error. At this rate, the 2023 offense probably will not finish much better than any of the five impotent versions that came before it. The unit has not finished in the top 20 in offensive points or expected points added since the departure of Kirk Cousins following the 2017 season.

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This offseason, the Commanders are likely to have a new general manager and coaching staff, which probably will have to look at the same set of problems. Given the offense’s performance, the odds seem long that Bieniemy will be one of the decision-makers. It would be easy to keep Howell, who will have two years left on his contract, but it could be tempting to draft a top quarterback prospect if the Commanders end up with a top pick. The new regime could have a relatively blank slate on the line, with only one starter, right guard Sam Cosmi, seemingly locked in to return.

In the locker room Sunday, wide receiver Terry McLaurin said he didn’t want to speculate on what the team would need in the offseason because he was focused on improving the offense next week against the New York Jets.

“You don’t know what personnel is going to be here,” he said. “You don’t know the scheme we’re going to be in. You don’t know any of that stuff.”

Early this year, Washington’s offense looked promising and explosive despite a couple of clunkers. The unit hit its stride midseason31 points against Philadelphia, 20 at New England, 26 at Seattle — and was seemingly held back only by the terrible defense. But then the offense started to crater, too.

In Week 11, Washington moved the ball but had six turnovers in a loss to the New York Giants. The offense looked feeble in two blowouts against the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins. Sunday, coming off the bye, was a chance to prove that, though the team had plenty of issues, the offense wasn’t a big one.

Instead, Washington did the opposite. Howell’s problems were perhaps the most magnified. He continued to struggle to make plays within the structure of the offense. He threw late or without his usual touch and could have been intercepted more than once. On an early fourth and one, Howell rolled out left, and a Rams defender batted the pass away. Howell now leads the NFL with 17 batted passes, according to TruMedia.

After Rivera benched Howell for Brissett, Howell was as emotionally restrained on the sideline as he is on the field. If it bothered him to see the offense crisp and effective without him, he didn’t betray it, and when Brissett came off the field, they low-fived and huddled with a tablet.

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“He’s going to be a good player in this league for a long time,” Brissett said. “This shouldn’t discourage him or anything. That’s like my little brother, man. I always have his back. Literally, every time off the field, I was talking to him because I know how this moment can feel. I’ve been in similar situations. Maybe a little different but similar situations. And the key is just you can’t be discouraged, can’t lose confidence, and I’m sure he won’t. I’m sure he can come back and be better than this.”

“We still wholeheartedly believe in Sam,” McLaurin said.

After the game, Howell said he didn’t fault Rivera for benching him — “I have to play better” — and he said he expects to bounce back next week.

“I know I’m not defined by this one game,” he said.

But the loss to the Rams neatly captures the Commanders’ recent offense. As the team walked from the field to the locker room, there were few words and no smiles. One of the last in was Bieniemy, the architect of a unit that looks like the other disappointments that have come before.

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