The Washington Commanders desperately need an identity
By Jonathan Eig
This may come as a shock to some of you, but the team we now call the Washington Commanders once went by another name. Yes, for those old enough to remember, they once strode the field in triumph as … the Washington Football Team.
OK, there was another name before that and that team, through both high and low eras, often had an identity. Be it the Sammy Baugh aerial assault of the 1940’s, the lovable losers of the 1950’s, the Hall of Fame Offense/Grade School Defense of the 1960’s – you knew what you were getting with those teams. When George Allen took over in the 1970’s, you knew what the Over-the-Hill gang was going to give you. Once Joe Gibbs settled in during the 1980’s, you also knew – and you took pride.
Even in the early days of Daniel Snyder’s ownership, you knew what the team was. It was an overpriced collection of former major names – the final destination for every once-big star. It was maddeningly frustrating. But it was consistent.
Somewhere along the way, identity ceased to be a thing. Maybe it does have something to do with the rebrand, though I think that is just a convenient scapegoat. It seems that with every passing season of Daniel Snyder’s ownership, more and more of this once-noble franchise simply vanishes. As the stubborn, childish, petulant owner digs in further and further, everything about this organization – not simply its long-standing name – is being erased.
I’ve never placed too much stock in a team’s “identity.” I think you either win or you lose. But it’s obvious that most successful teams do emphasize particular strengths. Kansas City wins on the magic of Patrick Mahomes’ arm. Buffalo is trying to get their riding both the arms and legs of Josh Allen.
The Washington Commanders have no identity. On offense, they do not run the ball well, currently ranking in the bottom five in the league. They are tenth in the league in passing, but that is largely due to the fact that they have fallen behind big in most of their games and have had to throw the ball a lot. If you look at yards-per-attempt (instead of total yards), Washington’s passing attack is comparable to Cleveland, Houston, and Carolina. Hardly juggernauts.
This team was supposed to be built on its defense. Most of the high draft capital and a lot of the high-value free agents in the last five years have been on defense. But this defense is decidedly mediocre, slotting in in the exact middle of the league in most categories. Except in one key category – takeaways. Until last week’s game against the woeful Chicago Bears, the Washington Commanders were dead last in takeaways. They were one of two teams which had not recovered a fumble. They had one lone interception.
Technically, Washington has yet to recover a fumble. Christian Holmes recovered a muff last week. The difference? The defense does nothing to cause a muffed punt. You rely on the other team’s incompetence.
Relying on the Bears’ incompetence proved to be Washington’s best strategy last week. But I’m not sure it qualifies as an identity.
Back in 2015, there was a particular team that did have an identity. They featured a conservative offense that ran the ball very well and had a great tight end. All five of their primary runners averaged better than four yards per carry. They had a play-making quarterback.
Their defense was built around two Pro Bowl linebackers who combined for almost 250 tackles. And they produced turnovers at an exceptionally high rate, dominating the league in turnover differential.
In other words, they were about as far removed from the 2022 Washington Commanders as a team could be. That team, the Carolina Panthers, coached by Ron Rivera, went to the Super Bowl. They had Cam Newton and Gregg Olsen, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis Jr. They had a pretty good run.
The 2022 Washington Commanders have some good players. They have Terry McLaurin. Even without Chase Young, they have three first-round draft picks in the defensive line, each of whom are performing well in Young’s absence.
Through five games, McLaurin had been targeted 33 times – one fewer targets than Josh Reynolds on Detroit.
Before getting to feast on Justin Fields, the defense was allowing an opposing passer rating of 103, 6th worst in the league.
On crucial plays – such as game-determining two-point conversions, or goal line plays at the end of games – the offense seems utterly lost.
There have been some signs of progress. The defense has begun generating more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and the 3rd down conversion defense has improved. On offense, there have been more big plays in the passing attack. And though they again seemed hopeless in their lone two-point conversion attempt last week, Brian Robinson was able to power into the end from short yardage.
But none of these modest gains suggest any kind of identity. This team has none. It’s best elements, like the defensive line, are mediocre. Its worst, like rushing offense, are among the worst in the league.
Anonymity offers its own particular brand of hell. I became a fan in the 1960’s. The team didn’t win a lot. But to quote Lori McKenna, “that’s not why we came.” We were proud of the offensive firepower that Sonny, Charley and Bobby provided. We knew what we were going to see, and what were going to see was entertaining. Sometimes, we’d even win.
In 2022, the Washington Commanders are a very boring football team. And they lose a lot. That is not the identity you want to build around.