The Washington Commanders have no room for over-confidence heading into their Week 1 opener against the Arizona Cardinals at a sold-out FedEx Field.
The Washington Commanders begin the 2023 season with more excitement than there has been at least dating back to Robert Griffin III’s rookie season. Dan Snyder is gone. There is a very promising young quarterback. By God, they even beat the Baltimore Ravens in the preseason.
Hype is running higher than ever. And I am worried as hell.
I’m worried because I remember watching a game early last season between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans. It was Week 5 and the Jags were trending up. They had just lost a tough game to the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles. But they had been up 14-0 early in that game before succumbing.
In the two weeks before that, they had throttled two teams with visions of the playoffs – the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Chargers – by a combined 62-10. The Jaguars had been bad for a long time, but now they had a good young quarterback and an improved roster.
Now, the sky was the limit.
Commanders must not take Week 1 for granted
They had a home game in Week 5 and the Jaguars were favored by seven. Jacksonville was not a team typically favored by that margin. At least not since the heady days of Blake Bortles. But they were hosting the Texans, and everybody knew Houston was the worst team in the league.
Some great quarterbacks have two first names. Tom Brady, Justin Herbert, Trevor Lawrence. Well, Houston was so bad that their quarterback had two last names – Davis Mills.
There was no way the Texans were going into Jacksonville and beating the Jaguars. Except they did.
It was an ugly, ugly game. Mills threw for a whopping 140 passing yards. They gave up a whopping 5.8 yards per play. For the record – the first whopping was sarcastic and the second was genuine. And still, they won.
They won in part because as good as Lawrence is, he was still a young guy and threw a couple of bad interceptions. Mills threw none.
They won because when the Jags drove the ball inside the ten-yard line in the first quarter, Houston made them settle for a field goal. And when Jacksonville drove inside the 20 in the second quarter, same story. Houston only gave up another field goal.
And they won because when Jacksonville drove inside the ten again to begin the third quarter, rookie Derek Stingley Jr. picked off Lawrence in the end zone.
Houston managed just 248 total yards for the game.
And they won.
Commanders must treat the Cardinals with respect
So don’t tell me that the Arizona Cardinals can’t beat the Commanders come Week 1. The NFC West outfit – without Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins, without J.J. Watt and Isaiah Simmons – the team who is already being accused of tanking before the first tackle of the season – can absolutely, positively beat Washington.
I don’t think they will. But if you think they can’t, you haven’t been paying attention.
I began worrying about this in the aftermath of the second preseason game – the win over the Ravens. Terry McLaurin had hurt his toe and no one knew how serious it was. Almost immediately, I heard a noticeable portion of the fanbase suggest that the wide receiver should sit out the Cardinals game.
The logic was simple. The Commanders don't need McLaurin to defeat the Cardinals.
Now, that may be true. But to count on that – to actually make that part of your calculation – is about as foolish as it gets.
As it turns out, McLaurin will probably not be healthy enough to play against the Cardinals. And as I said, I think the Commanders are good enough to win this game without him. But this is the NFL, and you never take wins for granted. You never sit a player in a meaningful game because the perception is that he isn't needed.
Arizona has gone through its mind-boggling personnel moves in the last week. The chorus of “we can beat the Cardinals with our eyes closed” has only gotten stronger as a result.
I grant you that the Cardinals do not appear to have much on paper. But they still have James Conner, who averaged almost 4.5 yards per carry last year, and the Commanders' run defense is sketchy.
They still have Budda Baker, perhaps the best all-around safety in the league. He will be relishing the prospect of playing mind games with the Commanders' young quarterback.
They have Washington-killer Zach Ertz at tight end. They have Kyzir White, who has recorded more than 100 tackles in each of the last two seasons - going up against a suspect Commanders interior offensive line.
Then they have a host of young hungry kids who enter this game eager to prove they are not the players a team puts on the field when they are trying to tank. Hunger and no expectations can be a dangerous mix.
Look, I’m not saying the Commanders won't handle their business on opening day. I think they will. Arizona may well be the worst team in the league. But so was Houston when they traveled to Jacksonville early last season.
If Washington assumes they are already 1-0, they will instead be 0-1.