It could take a while to dig out from Daniel Snyder mess

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)

It’s rare for everyone in NFL circles, from players to owners to fans to the league office itself, to agree on something.

Everyone agreed Daniel Snyder had to go.

It’s not worth rehashing all that Snyder did wrong as Washington Commanders owner, but the list is long. The league seemed to adjust its standards for new owner Josh Harris and his group just to get rid of Snyder, with one high-ranking team executive telling Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein, “If it wasn’t Snyder, this deal doesn’t happen.” Commanders fans, many of whom gave up on rooting for team until Snyder sold, could rejoice after more than two decades of misery. The NFL was beyond ready for Snyder to be gone.

An ownership change (which still needs to be made official by a vote, which is expected in July) won’t have a huge effect on the field for the 2023 Commanders, and if we’re being honest, it might be a while before the owners can really focus on the on-field product. It’s not like the change makes the Commanders instant Super Bowl contenders. There is a lot to repair. They need to clean up a culture run amok. The team badly needs a new stadium, and Snyder’s poor people skills and various misdeeds are probably a reason the team has made little headway in that direction. The Commanders need to mend the relationship with fans after Snyder drove them away for more than 20 years. The football side might need to be scrubbed too, considering how little the team has won lately.

The 2022 season was a microcosm of the Commanders’ roster missteps. Everyone except the Commanders front office hated their trade for quarterback Carson Wentz when it happened, and it turned out as badly as the masses figured it would. Wentz was awful and got benched, and then got cut. A year ago Washington gave up valuable picks for Wentz and paid him $22 million; this year Wentz was unsigned months into the offseason. When Wentz was called upon to start again late last season, fans were chanting so loudly for Taylor Heinicke — let that last part sink in for a moment — that defensive end Montez Sweat had to ask the fans to quiet down.

“I don’t think the crowd really gave Carson much of a chance today, honestly,” Sweat said, via the Washington Times. “(But) that’s the name of the game. I understand the fan base is tired of losing.”

There aren’t many reasons to believe things turn around this season. The Commanders could have gotten in the Lamar Jackson sweepstakes but said they were good with 2022 fifth-round pick Sam Howell after Howell had one start last season. The draft was graded as one of the worst in the NFL. Chase Young, seen as a foundational piece for the Commanders after winning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2020, didn’t have his fifth-year option exercised after another lost season due to a knee injury. Coach Ron Rivera, a shockingly good hire in 2020 for an owner that shouldn’t have been able to land a candidate with any other options, hasn’t worked out yet and seems to be on the hot seat.

Wide receiver Jahan Dotson of the Washington Commanders had a promising rookie season after being the team's 2022 first-round pick. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Wide receiver Jahan Dotson of the Washington Commanders had a promising rookie season after being the team’s 2022 first-round pick. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Mismanagement and general malaise is nothing new for the franchise. This century the Commanders have qualified for the playoffs just five times, with only one win. That came in the wild-card round at the end of the 2005 season. They haven’t won more than 10 games in a season since 1991, the longest drought in the NFL by 17 years. But there’s a reason Josh Harris and his group dropped a record $6.05 billion on the franchise. A lot of that price has to do with entering a prime market, but it shows the potential for the franchise under a competent owner.

This feels like a transitional season and then we’ll see if a rebuild comes next. Rivera, Howell, Young and others have a year to establish themselves or they’ll likely be gone. Ownership has a big job ahead of it off the field, cleaning up after a disastrous era. Whatever energy is left over for the on-field product will be spent figuring out which players and coaches fit in the plans for the franchise’s rebirth.

Snyder wrecked the franchise over his 24 seasons as owner. It won’t turn all the way around in the first season without him, but at least the Commanders’ days of being the biggest embarrassment in the NFL should be over.

Offseason grade

I won’t include Daniel Snyder selling the team in this grade, though it’s obviously significant. What the Commanders did to retool the 2023 roster wasn’t great but at least it didn’t include a ridiculous move like last year’s Carson Wentz trade. The team spent on the offensive line, signing tackle Andrew Wylie ($24 million over three years) and center Nick Gates ($16.5 million over three years). That’s not exciting but it will help. The big move was retaining defensive tackle Daron Payne on a four-year, $90 million deal. That’s a lot of money, but Payne is a blue-chip player. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett was signed after a solid season with the Cleveland Browns, and he could beat out Sam Howell for the starting job. The losses in free agency can be overcome. The Commanders’ draft was not popular among experts. In the consensus grades compiled by Football Outsiders, the Commanders had the second-worst grade among all 32 teams. The team’s top two picks, Mississippi State cornerback Emmanuel Forbes at No. 16 overall and Illinois defensive back Jartavius Martin at No. 47, were considered reaches. Draft grades aren’t always the final say in how picks will turn out, but it’s disheartening to see everyone pan Washington’s class.

Grade: C-

Quarterback report

Maybe if the timing of the team sale was different, Washington could have looked into Lamar Jackson when he was on the franchise tag. It didn’t make a lot of sense that a flailing franchise that needs to reconnect with its fans and has no marketable stars, especially at quarterback, would show no interest in a former MVP in his prime like Jackson. But it’s not the worst idea for Washington to see what it has with Sam Howell. Howell looked OK in a Week 18 start last season and made plays in his rookie preseason. Howell wasn’t a normal fifth-round pick; he came into his final college season with first-round pick buzz but his stock fell. What if he is closer to that top prospect than the one who dropped to the third day of the draft? He has some raw talent. Howell’s cap hit is $3.2 million over the next three seasons combined. It would be a boon for the franchise if he hits. If he doesn’t, Jacoby Brissett could take over — he might win the job in preseason with the team promoting an open competition — and Washington can see if Brissett can build on what he did with the Browns during Deshaun Watson‘s suspension. If both don’t work out, Washington might regret being so dismissive of the Jackson option. But it’s not like being in the quarterback muck is new for the Commanders.

BetMGM odds breakdown

I’ll skip the win total (though I’d lean slightly to the under of 6.5) and go to a player future. Defensive end Chase Young is +8000 at BetMGM to win NFL Comeback Player of the Year. Over the last two seasons, Young has played just 12 games with 1.5 sacks. He didn’t have a single sack last season. An ACL tear from 2021 has lingered, but Young said he’s feeling better. Having his fifth-year option declined provides motivation. We’ve already seen Young, who was a fantastic prospect as the No. 2 overall pick of the draft, play at a high level. He was the 2020 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. If Young is healthy and can put up double-digit sacks, he has the name recognition to be in the Comeback Player of the Year mix. That’s all you can ask from an 80-to-1 shot.

Yahoo’s fantasy take

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “We have to mind the gap between fantasy and real-life value, and Terry McLaurin is a player who illustrates that concept. Although largely considered a star receiver, McLaurin has only caught 14 touchdowns in his last three seasons, which has kept him from cracking the Top 12 in fantasy points at the position. And the Commanders offense could continue to frustrate McLaurin; mobile quarterback Sam Howell is possible to start (perhaps stealing some passing scores), and Washington also figures to siphon lots of targets to receivers Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel. I’ve been long on McLaurin shares for several years, but this year I’m probably moving in the opposite direction.”

Stat to remember

Washington’s defense is underrated. The Commanders ranked first last season in success rate allowed and fifth in EPA (expected points added) per play allowed, via RBSDM.com. For those who prefer traditional stats, the Commanders were seventh in points allowed and third in yards allowed. Washington has a good coverage unit with a very good defensive line — one that will be elite if Chase Young rebounds. Montez Sweat, Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen and Young are all capable of huge seasons. The Commanders didn’t make enough big plays last season. They had just 18 takeaways, 26th in the NFL. That can be a fluky stat and if there’s some positive regression in that area, Washington’s defense could be among the league’s best.

Burning question

What impact will Eric Bieniemy have on the offense?

It might not be fair that Bieniemy needed to leave the Kansas City Chiefs to have a shot at a head-coaching job, but it seemed to be reality. If Bieniemy can have a great season as Washington’s offensive coordinator, away from Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes, running an offense led by Sam Howell or Jacoby Brissett, that could change how he’s viewed and maybe lead to a bigger opportunity. Perhaps that opportunity could come in Washington if Ron Rivera has a fourth straight non-winning season. There are some good pieces for Bieniemy to work with. Running back Brian Robinson Jr. showed some good things as a rookie, which is amazing considering he was shot in the leg right before the season began. Antonio Gibson is a talented backup. Terry McLaurin is a very good veteran No. 1 receiver, 2022 first-round pick Jahan Dotson had some remarkable plays as a rookie (and could end up being the No. 1 over McLaurin) and Curtis Samuel is a capable third option. If Howell or Brissett can take advantage of all the talent around them and the offense takes a step forward, Bieniemy should get proper credit.

Best-case scenario

Washington was 8-8-1 last season and that was with a lot of things going wrong. They won at the Philadelphia Eagles, ending their undefeated streak. The defense might be some turnovers away from becoming a top-five unit. And what if the Commenders’ faith in Sam Howell is justified, and he’s an asset at quarterback? With new coordinator Eric Bieniemy bringing fresh ideas to the offense and talent around the QB position, maybe there’s a big improvement coming. It’s still hard to envision the Commanders finishing ahead of the Eagles or Dallas Cowboys, but being in wild-card contention in a weak NFC might happen.

Nightmare scenario

The Commanders aren’t a bad team, but they’re not good either. It’s the kind of roster that needs a top quarterback to elevate everyone else, and Sam Howell or Jacoby Brissett are unlikely to be that guy. Washington’s new owners have a lot to do, but they also don’t want to dig a deeper hole with the fanbase by settling for double-digit loss seasons. Washington is in a division with three 2022 playoff teams and the Commanders could finish far below .500 if they struggle at quarterback. Presumably that would lead to a pretty big housecleaning that might include Ron Rivera. A lot of jobs are at stake in Washington this season.

The crystal ball says …

The last time the Commanders were well above average was 2012 with rookie Robert Griffin III at quarterback. Griffin had a full NFL career and is in his third season as an ESPN commentator. It has been a long time since Washington was good and that slump is unlikely to turn around this season. Washington hasn’t been awful the past few seasons under Ron Rivera, including a division title with a 7-9 record in a miserable NFC East in 2020, but there aren’t many signs of immediate progress. Seeing what they have with Sam Howell is reasonable, but still seems like a long shot. Washington likely finishes last in the NFC East and then ownership gets to make a stamp on the franchise with some big personnel changes.

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25. Washington Commanders

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