National Football League
Commanders set for a season of transition in 2023
National Football League

Commanders set for a season of transition in 2023

Published Sep. 6, 2023 2:41 p.m. ET

Everything is awesome in Washington, for the first time in what feels like forever. And all Josh Harris had to do was show up (with $6 billion) and not be Dan Snyder.

The stench is finally gone from the franchise. Fans are coming out of their self-imposed exile. Harris has even invested in fixing up the run-down stadium he just purchased.

But will any of that joy last when the Commanders start playing games?

Maybe for a little while, but the reality of this season is that the Commanders are a team in transition. And it's not a clean or clear transition either. They are switching to a new offense, after importing offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy from Kansas City, and they are turning the keys to it over to second-year quarterback Sam Howell. But they're not doing that at a time when they need to be building something for the future.


Ron Rivera needs them to win now.

No one has said that, of course, but Rivera has acknowledged his predicament. He's got a three-year record of 22-27-1 and a new boss who wants results and a better future. That new boss probably has his own ideas of who he wants to lead his franchise, too.

This year is Rivera's lone chance to convince Harris that it should be him.

Can he do that with a young quarterback running a new offense with a team that's talented, but probably needs everything to go right to win? That's the question that will hover over the Commanders this season. Their future is finally brighter than it's been in a long time.

This season will determine who will actually be in it.

So here's a look at the team that is Rivera's last hope to prolong his head coaching career:

The Quarterback: Rivera is convinced that quarterback is no longer a problem for the Commanders and he's seen enough to entrust the 22-year-old Howell with his future in Washington. It's a big bet on a former fifth-round pick, in a division with Jalen Hurts, Dak Prescott and Daniel Jones. Howell seems to have all the tools and scouts think there's potential there. The big issue, though, is his lack of experience. Every young quarterback struggles at the start. It won't help him that he's learning his second offense in two NFL seasons either. There will likely be flashes of brilliance, but there will also be plenty of painful, growing moments. That's a problem in a stacked division. And it's a problem the Commanders may not be talented enough to overcome.

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Under-the-radar player to watch: Terry McLaurin might be The Man at receiver in Washington, but it's possible that their best receiver is Jahan Dotson. He showed some flashes of game-breaking ability last season along with reliable hands and a knack for getting open. He also caught 35 passes for 523 yards and seven touchdowns in just 12 games as the Commanders' third receiver with generally crummy quarterback play. Assuming he stays healthy and that Howell is an improvement, don't be shocked if the quarterback relies more and more on Dotson as the season goes along. He has explosive potential. And with McLaurin drawing the attention of defenses, Dotson could put up huge numbers, too.

Strength of the team: Their defensive line is one of the best in the league — like maybe Top 3. It's hard to find a better defensive tackle tandem than Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, and the end duo of Montez Sweat and Chase Young could be dominant if they stay healthy. Granted, that's counting on a huge bounce-back season from Young, but he's still only 24, loaded with ability, and it wasn't that long ago that he was the Defensive Rookie of the Year (2020). The Commanders had the NFL's No. 3 defense last season. They're likely to be just as stingy thanks to that front.

Area of concern: This really isn't good, especially for a young quarterback who needs time to process what he sees on the field, but the offensive line didn't look great in preseason. It's also filled with players with a history of injury issues and there just isn't a lot of depth. They were actually one of the worst lines in the NFL last season and they didn't spend a ton this offseason to get better. They got former Chiefs right tackle Andrew Wylie, coming off a poor season, and former Giants center Nick Gates, who played 10 games last season coming back from a gruesome leg injury in 2021. They're taking a big chance that everyone will step up at the same time.

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Rookie to watch: How could anyone not watch Emmanuel Forbes, the speedy, slight (he was 6-foot-1, 167 at the combine, though he's listed at 180 now) corner who was an interception machine in college? His 14 college interceptions (in three seasons) and FBS record six career Pick-6s jump off the page and if he can do anything close to that it could be transformative for a turnover-challenged Washington secondary. Really, their corners and safeties were far better last season than they got credit for, but they had seven total interceptions and only two players — safety Darrick Forrest (four) and corner Kendall Fuller (three) — picked off a pass. If Forbes is the ballhawk they think he is, he'll be a game-changer for them.

Money players: As soon as the Commanders decided not to pick up the fifth-year option on Chase Young's contract (for 2024) it set up an interesting battle between him and Sweat. Both of them are scheduled to hit free agency after the season. Both of them could be in line for huge contracts if they can stay healthy, rack up the sacks and have a big season. But the Commanders probably can only pay one of them, especially with all they're already paying Allen and Payne. Rivera seems fine with letting them battle it out and prove their worth. He's sure it'll keep them motivated. It'll be a problem in the offseason if both of them play well, but that's a problem Washington is hoping they'll have.

Outlook: They are paper thin at most spots on the roster and the offensive line probably belongs in the bottom third of the league. But other than that, they have a lot of good pieces. Their defense is strong. Their skill players on offense are terrific (though they could've used an upgrade over 32-year-old Logan Thomas at tight end). In a lesser division, they'd have a chance to win some games. But this division is stacked, their schedule isn't easy, and it's just hard to overcome the roller coaster ride of young quarterbacks. Howell will throw some games away. They all do. And this team can't afford to have any games thrown away.

Prediction: 6-11 … They will make progress. Howell will look good at times and so will the Bieniemy offense. Unfortunately, they're probably laying the foundation for another coach, because they're going to have trouble winning enough to convince the new owner to give Rivera another year.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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