“I would love to win here for sure, but I want to win, first and foremost,” Allen said on 106.7 the Fan on Monday. “So that’s always going to be at the front and center of my mind, and everything I’m going to be doing in my career is going to make sure I’ll have an opportunity to win.”
In the third quarter of the Commanders’ season, which we’re defining as Weeks 9 through 13, things fell apart. It started well, with a win in New England, then ended with four straight losses and the firing of defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and a defensive assistant.
Let’s look back at the failures and try to answer these questions: What can be fixed, and what’s broken beyond repair? Who will be a part of the solution moving forward?
Coach Ron Rivera has continually stressed the importance of Sam Howell’s development, even amid the four-game losing streak, and he has said he still believes Howell has the potential to be the long-term starting quarterback in Washington. Confidence in Howell remains strong, but his future is muddied by the team’s performance (and his) and its plan to rebuild. Howell has continued to display a coveted skill set — mobility, arm talent, ability to go off-script to extend plays — but makes many persistent mistakes. Six of his 14 interceptions this season came in the past five games, and he has thrown a pick-six in each of the past three games.
Think back to Washington’s final drive in the first half against New England. Howell scrambled for 24 yards on third down — perhaps one of his finest plays — but was intercepted in the end zone five plays later when he should have thrown the ball out of bounds.
A complete and accurate evaluation of Howell may not come until Washington’s offense has a more solid footing, especially up front with the play of the offensive line. But the Commanders may never get stability. Howell could see his third system and play-caller next season, and should Washington land a top-five pick in the draft, he may not be the only quarterback in the room being considered for a starting role.
So though there’s still confidence in Howell among Washington’s current regime — as well as from players, including Allen, who have said they believe Howell can be a solid starter for years to come — his future isn’t certain.
2024 draft picks: As the losses pile up, the value of Washington’s picks continues to rise. As it stands now, the team holds the fourth pick, three in the top 40 and five in the top 100. Managing partner Josh Harris can use the stockpile as one more tool to woo general manager candidates.
But the final quarter of the season will be important. There’s a cluster of nine teams with four or five wins, so if Washington pulls off an upset, it could slide down the draft order. The first tiebreaker is strength of schedule (combined opponent winning percentage, lowest first), and the second is head-to-head record.
Commanders fans should root for Chicago, Tennessee and both New York teams.
Brian Robinson Jr.: Robinson is one of the few players whose growth is glaringly obvious. The 24-year-old was best known as a between-the-tackles bowling ball but has now also proved himself as a dangerous receiver. Unexpectedly, he has been the most consistent big-play threat on offense; he leads the team with 22 explosive plays. Robinson has established himself as a big piece in the Commanders’ offense of the future.
Star players: Understandably, Washington’s pass rush diminished significantly after the trades of Montez Sweat and Chase Young. It still has Allen and Daron Payne inside, but the two have lacked the production they had earlier the season, for various reasons. Payne notched only one sack, two quarterback hits and six pressures in the past five games, per the website TruMedia. Allen had 2.5 sacks, six hits and 12 pressures.
On offense, Washington’s wide receivers have struggled, too, with the modest exception of Curtis Samuel. Terry McLaurin, who was targeted only three times against Miami, had a catch rate of only 48.6 percent in the past five games and didn’t score at all in that span. Jahan Dotson had a beautiful 33-yard touchdown catch against the Patriots, but his production has lagged compared with last season.
Personnel department: Look no further than the 2023 draft class. Only one player, first-round corner Emmanuel Forbes Jr., was an immediate contributor, and his contributions of late have been minimal (or detrimental). The team’s two rookie pass rushers, Andre Jones Jr. and KJ Henry, have played perhaps as well as could be expected for rookies with no experience, but they aren’t ready to be regular reserves. Second-round nickel/safety Quan Martin has shown flashes of improvement but needs to grow; Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill burned him at the line of scrimmage Sunday on a 60-yard touchdown. Matching Hill’s speed is a tall task, but Martin probably wasn’t supposed to be in press coverage in the slot on that play.
The secondary: The defensive backs have been a disappointment for much of the season, largely because of the expectations coming into the year. They repeated mistakes, even after Rivera attempted to pare down the defense to eliminate some complicating checks that seemed to slow down younger players. Washington gave up 32 explosive passing plays (16 yards or more) in the past five games, the second most in the league in that span. Seven were touchdowns. Often they were because of blown coverages, missed assignments and missed tackles.
Biggest surprise: No defensive bounce-back
Del Rio couldn’t do it again. In each of his first three years, the defense followed up slow starts with dramatic improvements that helped the team make playoff pushes. But things just got worse this campaign, in large part because of a secondary prone to blowing coverages.
Despite a glimmer of hope midseason, it became obvious there would be no turnaround in Week 10 in Seattle, in which the defense allowed scores on the last three drives. Rivera fired Del Rio two weeks later.
Who’s next? No question is more important. Harris and his ownership group seem poised to make major changes, such as a new coach and possibly a new general manager. A new regime will dictate the Commanders’ systems, coaching staff and roster.
Which players will stay? The final four games of the season will be a tryout of sorts for the many who aren’t locks to return next season — which is almost everyone. But the decisions on their futures will be made by someone who probably isn’t already in the building.
Will Washington regret trading Sweat? The Commanders received great value in return, probably a high second-round pick from Chicago. It’s hard for any team, especially one that’s rebuilding, to pass up that value, and paying all four starting linemen wasn’t feasible. But Sweat was a tough player to lose; in four games with the Bears, he has 2.5 sacks, six quarterback hits and 18 pressures. What’s more: He’s only 27. Replicating his physical traits and experience will be difficult through the draft or free agency.
The final quarter of the season is tough. It starts with two games on the road, at the Los Angeles Rams and New York Jets, and ends with two at home against NFC juggernauts San Francisco and Dallas. Despite middling records and clear flaws, the Rams (6-6) and Jets (4-8) also have formidable strengths.
The most important game is probably against New York on Christmas Eve. It’s the most winnable game left — unless Dallas is locked into its playoff position before Week 18 and rests starters or plays poorly as it did last year. The Jets are also a direct competitor for a top-five pick and probably will have the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker over the Commanders. It would help the organization in the long term if the team lost the game.
Rivera acknowledged everyone is frustrated and said his message to the team following the Miami loss was to finish strong.
“We’ve got four left,” he said. “I expect everybody to be a professional, show up and do their job.”