A look back: WTOP Sports team’s top sports stories of 2022

Just as we did last year, the WTOP sports team has assembled Avengers-style to bring you the top sports stories of 2022.

If 2021 was the first step toward normalcy after sports went dark in 2020, then 2022 is the year of accountability in sports. Robert Sarver’s ouster in Phoenix is complete, Dan Snyder appears close to a true reckoning that may cost him ownership of the Commanders and the Washington Spirit is in its first year of new ownership for similar reasons.

Our sports staff is rich with insider insights. In his final year as WTOP Senior Sports Director, Dave Johnson touches on the Wizards and D.C. United from the vantage point as the longtime play-by-play voice of both teams.

Ben Raby is the host of Capitals radio broadcasts for Monumental Sports and Entertainment, George Wallace is WTOP’s longtime Washington Commanders beat reporter and Dave Preston is a voter for college basketball’s AP Top 25.

Rob Woodfork has written hundreds of NFL columns for a variety of outlets (including more than a decade here at WTOP) and WTOP digital editor José Umaña — an honorary member of the sports team — did extensive work covering soccer (also a NWSL Media Association member) and high school sports around the D.C. region.

(Editor’s note: Check out a special episode of the D.C. Sports Huddle for more!)

Without further adieu, here are the top sports stories of 2022, in no particular order:

Real hope for a new NFL owner in Washington

When last year we discussed Dan Snyder’s reckoning, I don’t know that anyone believed it would come as soon as it did.

In a shocking development, co-owners Dan and Tanya Snyder took the first step toward selling the team last month, and while it’s not a done deal, it appears likely to be completed as early as March. The move came not long after a bombshell ESPN report that Snyder was collecting dirt on fellow owners and commissioner Roger Goodell, and Jim Irsay became the first NFL owner to speak out against Snyder publicly.

Snyder has long been a dark cloud hanging over not only Washington’s once-proud NFL franchise, but D.C. sports as a whole. The widespread belief is that once Snyder is gone, Washington can finally get the state-of-the-art stadium it desperately needs and the franchise can heal from the decades-long dysfunction that derailed it. Also, fans are hoping a new owner will rebrand the team from the unpopular Commanders moniker that ultimately replaced the 87-year-old controversial name.

This much we know: 2022 will forever be the year the long-suffering Burgundy and Gold faithful were given real hope for salvation from Snyder’s tumultuous reign.

— Rob Woodfork

Washington’s continued search for a franchise QB

As usual with Washington, the biggest story of 2022 came off the field — but there were actually a couple big on-field stories.

One can argue that the most important story this season was the re-signing of Terry McLaurin to a long-term contract. It was something that needed to be done and head coach Ron Rivera and the Commanders front office got it done. McLaurin is one of the faces of the franchise and if this team has any shot of taking the next step, it needs its Pro Bowl wide receiver.

The other big story was, and continues to be, the quarterback situation. For the second straight offseason, the front office brought in a veteran QB whose past success is not the long-term answer in Washington: In 2021, the Ryan Fitzpatrick era lasted only a quarter before it ended in injury and this year, Carson Wentz missed eight games with a finger injury before returning in a relief appearance in Week 16.

Wentz is not the answer to the quarterback situation, nor is Taylor Heinicke. Until this team finds a solution to the most important position on the field — and once again, this offseason will be filled with questions about it — Washington will have a hard time taking that next step.

Whatever they do, it needs to be done and done fast.

— George Wallace

Tiafoe’s meteoric rise to prominence

After years on the national tennis radar, Frances Tiafoe finally landed as perhaps the next big thing in U.S. men’s tennis in 2022 — and in a major way.

The native of Hyattsville, Maryland, made the best run for an American man at the U.S. Open in 16 years, advancing all the way to the semifinals and beating an all-time great, Rafael Nadal, along the way. Tiafoe’s four-set victory over the 22-time Grand Slam champion was a signature win, never allowing Nadal any room to make one of his patented comebacks.

Tiafoe — the first Black American man to reach the final four since 1972 — would lose to the eventual champion, 19-year-old Spanish phenom Carlos Alcaraz, in a grueling five-set match in New York City, but proclaimed he’ll be back to win a U.S. Open title someday.

Given his rise from his days at the Junior Tennis Center in College Park to the 17th-ranked player in the world, Tiafoe has put the rest of the world on notice — and that’s what he has always strived for.

— Frank Hanrahan

The Nationals’ blockbuster trade of Juan Soto

The Nationals were expected to start a rebuild after making many moves during and around the trade deadline of 2021 (Trea Turner, Max Scherzer, etc.) but even the truest Nats fan didn’t think it would be this bad.
During their major league-worst 55-107 season, the Nationals said adios to Juan Soto and Josh Bell, getting in return a slew of prospects. “Gone” Soto ended up going to a playoff team and will likely get paid more than he would have gotten in Washington (although probably never what agent Scott Boras wanted or thought).
The drama and frustration of Soto leaving the Nats will be felt for a long, long time — long beyond the Padres’ visit to Nats Park May 23-25.

— J. Brooks

A season of change in DMV college hoops

The year in local men’s college basketball gave us a chance to play geography major, as we extended the DMV net from Newark, Delaware, to Richmond, Virginia, while doubling down on Blacksburg.

In a March where Maryland finished with its first losing season since the early 1990s and Georgetown lost more games than they ever had in school history, one had to look for victories where one could. And after a busy offseason that saw a couple of inside-the-Beltway schools make hires while a ton of players everywhere transferred, we end 2022 with three teams that entered December ranked in the AP Top 25.

So many stories … and here are the TOP ones:

  1. Maryland makes its mark with a home run of a hire (so far). We’re not even halfway into Kevin Willard’s first season, but the former Seton Hall coach appears to have the program back on track with early wins against the likes of Illinois and Miami. The pressing/up-tempo style also resonates with fans who remember the pesky days of Gary Williams’ teams. They’re even embracing (at least for now) the 9 p.m. tipoffs that aren’t great for sleep but great for traffic in the D.C. area and were a staple in the Williams era (now, if only the Big Ten can emulate the ACC and have the Terps travel to Nebraska for a Saturday noon game after a Thursday 9 p.m. date).
  2. Georgetown goes 0-19 and makes changes. Yes, the beast of the Big East set a league record by going winless in 19 conference games last winter. Coach Patrick Ewing brought in a bunch of transfers (eight plus the two incoming freshmen) and revamped his coaching staff. But the new-look Hoyas are getting the same old results: they’ve been picked to next to last in the Big East and their non-league season has turned for the worse with defeats at home to American University (first loss to AU in 40 years) and on the road to former archrival Syracuse (who are coming off of their worst season in over 50 years).
  3. Hokies make history! Virginia Tech captured its first-ever ACC Tournament title by winning four games in four days (even though it was played in Brooklyn instead of Greensboro — it still counts). When Buzz Williams coached in Blacksburg, I always thought he had the Hokies a year ahead of schedule, and that’s the same case with Mike Young at Cassell Coliseum. Making a note for 2023: Virginia Tech visits Virginia Jan. 4 and hosts the Cavaliers Feb. 4.

Honorable Mention: George Washington hires ex-George Mason (and Miami) assistant Chris Caputo to lead the Colonials, American beats Georgetown for the first time since 1982, Howard posts a winning season for the first time since 2002, Richmond wins the Atlantic 10 Tournament at Capital One Arena, and Delaware takes the CAA Tournament at Entertainment & Sports Arena.

— Dave Preston

The Wizards believe they have a ‘Big Three’ to work with

In the summer, Bradley Beal signed his contract extension to stay with the team and that brought anticipation to see him on the court with Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma.

Beal had already played alongside Kuzma in 2021, but was sidelined by injury when the team acquired Porzingis that February. Porzingis has played at an All-Star level since arriving in D.C., averaging over 22 points per game and close to nine rebounds and three assists.

Kuzma has grown since his time with the Lakers (which produced a title in 2020), seizing on his expanded role with the Wizards and, like Porzingis, he’s flirting with an All-Star level.

Sadly for the Wizards, Beal has missed extended time through injuries and illness to start the 2022-23 season. But there have been glimpses of what this Wizards team might be, including promising defensive stretches and an impressive 5-1 homestand in early November.

To be sure, the Wizards have a “Big Three” again. The big question is whether they achieve consistency in the new year.

— Dave Johnson

A new era for the Mystics

In November, Mike Thibault retired from coaching after a 10-year run in Washington that yielded 173 of his WNBA-record 379 victories and the Mystics’ lone championship, handing the keys to one of the most talented rosters in the league to his son, Eric.

Though the elder Thibault will remain as the Mystics’ general manager, the younger Thibault is a head coach for the first time in his career.

The table can’t be set any better for Eric — the Mystics have the fourth overall pick in the 2023 WNBA Draft and already boast two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne, All-WNBA defender Natasha Cloud and prized 2022 rookie Shakira Austin — so the only thing stopping Washington from being a WNBA heavyweight is Eric’s readiness for the leading role on the Mystics bench.

— Rob Woodfork

A familiar rebound for the Terps

The Maryland women’s basketball team saw its March end earlier than expected: the Preseason Big Ten favorite fell in the quarterfinals of the Tournament for the first time since joining the league in 2014, and the Preseason AP No. 4 team tumbled in the Spokane Regional Semifinals to Stanford-slipping two steps shy of the Final Four.

But that was only prelude to a flurry of transfers: in addition to the starters who wrapped up their eligibility (Chloe Bibby and Katie Benzan), the Terps lost two more starters plus a rotation player to transfer as Angel Reese went to LSU, Ashley Owusu departed for Virginia Tech (Hokies are in the most recent Top 25), and Mimi Collins is now at NC State (third school of her career). The one starter coming back was a player who wasn’t even healthy for most of the season (Diamond Miller). Welcome to college sports in 2022, where velcro should be used for all nameplates in the locker rooms.

Now if this feels somewhat familiar, humor me here: in 2020, the Terps lost multiple starters to graduation (Kaila Charles and Stephanie Jones) as well as other contributors to transfer (Taylor Mikesell and Shakira Austin) but revamped the roster and rotation by using the transfer portal. Benzan and Bibby were incomers that led the program to a Big Ten championship, a No. 2 seed and a 26-3 finish that ended with a loss to Texas at neutral-site San Antonio (80 miles from the Longhorns’ campus).

So once again, coach Brenda Frese dipped into the transfer portal and has put together a roster of players who want to be at Maryland. Five transfers that includes Walt Whitman High School graduate and 2022 Ivy League Player of the Year Abby Meyers. Sophomore Shyanne Sellers has made the leap from rotation contributor to a factor at both ends of the floor. And Diamond Miller has been healthy for the most part (she missed the loss to defending national champ and No. 1 South Carolina) and delivered a dagger of a three in the waning moments of the 85-78 win over No. 6 UConn on Dec. 12. The Terps have also beaten No. 7 Notre Dame on the road (Miller’s buzzer-beating bucket was the difference in that game).

Will the smaller and scrappier version of the Terps (Miller is the tallest regular at 6-foot-3) continue to contend as they enter Big Ten play? The No. 20 Terrapins look up at four other conference teams ahead of them in the latest writer’s rankings. But one knows better than to doubt this program under Brenda Frese, who posted her 600th career win earlier in December.

Like Frese, the Terps are looking forward to what’s next.

— Dave Preston

Ovi’s assault on the record books

Sure, Alex Ovechkin has made these past few weeks a ‘December to Remember’ with milestones and tributes continuing to pile. But Ovechkin’s exploits haven’t been limited to just this most recent month.

Over the past calendar year, Ovechkin has established new NHL records for the most goals scored by a European, the most goals scored by a player with one franchise and the most career goals scored on the road (passing some guy named Wayne Gretzky in the process). Recently, Ovechkin became the third player in NHL history to score 800 goals. He then unveiled a trademarked ‘Gr8 Chase’ marketing campaign, as is he now within double digits of catching Gretzky for the all-time goal-scoring record (894).

From a team standpoint, the Capitals aging core suffered a fourth consecutive first-round exit last spring. Their last series win remains the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. As injuries have mounted this season and the Capitals approach the holidays on the outside of Eastern Conference playoff position, Ovechkin has remained a constant.

His chase of the all-time goal-scoring record is real. The question remains, whether the team around him can remain a legitimate threat come springtime.

— Ben Raby

Rooney’s return to Washington

Wayne Rooney is back with D.C. United for a second time.

It is incredible to me that I am writing this sentence because I marvel Rooney had a first time with United. When Rooney wore the Black and Red jersey and as a player, he took us on a memory-filled ride through the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Now, Rooney — one of the greatest players in the world to lace up the boots —  is in charge of D.C. United as head coach.

It was not expected. United had momentum from 2021 and almost made the playoffs in Hernan Losada’s first season as coach. But early in the 2022 campaign, it became clear to United management that the players were not responding to Losada’s tactics.

Rooney was available to join United because his English Football League Derby County ran into financial trouble. Despite the Rams’ money troubles, Rooney stayed with the team through difficult times and developed younger players.

Rooney wants to coach at the highest level. To do that, Rooney has to create a success story in D.C. He knows that and every indication is Rooney is approaching coaching with the same level of commitment that brought him success as a player.

— Dave Johnson

Championship drop-off for the Spirit but future set at Audi Field

After winning its first NWSL Championship in club history in 2021, the Washington Spirit looked poised to be title contenders again in 2022. With Michele Kang becoming the new controlling owner of the team and much of its championship roster returning, the Spirit started strong, reaching the finals of the Challenge Cup during the preseason.

However, in regular season play, everything changed. After winning its home opener, the Spirit went on a 16-match winless streak, with injuries, losing players to international duty, and bad luck playing a factor.

Then with six games remaining, head coach Kris Ward was fired after an altercation with an unnamed player. The Spirit ended the 2022 season with three regular-season victories as it watched Portland win the NWSL title in its city. Washington will also enter the new year without defender and fan-favorite Kelley O’Hara, who left in free agency.

One positive for Spirit fans heading to 2023 is the Spirit moving to play at Audi Field in Southwest D.C., full time. With a permanent home, a new head coach and Kang’s influence, the Spirit hopes the new year will bring much more success and a return to championship glory.

— José Umaña

Progress and change in the DC Metro area’s college football scene

Maryland posted its first winning regular season since 2014 behind dynamic quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, plus a revamped running game and dynamic defense (they came within one possession of both division winners and their loss to playoff-bound Ohio State wasn’t decided until the final minute of regulation).

Navy, after a fourth losing record in five years (and fifth loss in seven years to arch-rival Army), parted ways with longtime coach Ken Niumatalolo.

At the same time, Virginia and Virginia Tech had less than ideal debut seasons for their new head coaches Tony Elliott and Brent Pry. On the field, the Cavaliers and Hokies tied for last place in the Coastal Division, while off the field, both programs and the entire area mourned the loss of three UVA players killed in the November on-campus shooting. Meanwhile, another debut in Harrisonburg delivered plenty of cheers.

When James Madison announced last year that they were moving from FCS to FBS and from the CAA to the Sun Belt Conference, my first thought was, “yes, you’re going to make more money but at what cost?” having seen how tough transitions can be to new conferences. The football team I cover more than any other (Maryland) has yet to post a winning conference record since joining the Big Ten in 2014 and my alma mater (Syracuse) hasn’t recorded 20 regular season victories (that is, going into the conference tournament) since their first winter in the ACC. Could the Dukes go from being the big fish (eight straight FCS Tournament appearances) in the small pond to not getting eaten by sharks in the ocean?

The answer would be a resounding yes as JMU won its first five games to move into the AP Top 25 for the first time in program history. And even after a midseason slide, the Dukes won their final three games to finish tied for first in the Sun Belt Conference’s East Division (thank you SBC by NOT naming your divisions “Sun” and “Belt”) with Coastal Carolina. If it weren’t for the rule that made teams in their first year of FBS play ineligible for postseason play, the Dukes would have played Troy for the conference title and at 8-3 would have certainly been bowl-bound.

Now, coach Curt Cignetti has to find a way to follow up this dynamic debut. Not having to prepare for playing in a bowl means he can restock a roster that saw plenty of top performers exhaust their eligibility this fall. Let’s see what JMU can do in Year 2.

— Dave Preston

Will conventional wisdom for acquiring NFL quarterbacks shift? 

The 2022 NFL season was defined by the collective failure of the most accomplished — and expensive — quarterbacks.

Just take a look at this list:

Rank Player AAV
1 Aaron Rodgers $50.3 million
2 Russell Wilson $49 million
3 Kyler Murray $46.1 million
4 Deshaun Watson $46 million
5 Patrick Mahomes $45 million
6 Josh Allen $43 million
7 Derek Carr $40.5 million
T-8 Dak Prescott $40 million
T-8 Matthew Stafford $40 million
10 Kirk Cousins $35 million

On that list, only four out of the top 10 will make the playoffs — and likely not any of the top four.

To tie it locally, the Commanders dodged a bullet by Russell Wilson not even considering leaving Washington state for D.C., because he very well could be the greatest trade bust in NFL history. But it still complicates Washington’s desperate search for a franchise quarterback because if the “sure bets” like Wilson and Rodgers aren’t panning out, who can save them from this treadmill of mediocrity?

The answer lies either in a veteran retread with knowledge of the offensive system paying off unexpected dividends like Geno Smith is in Seattle or finding a franchise quarterback in the draft. The Commanders won’t pick high enough in the first round for the latter and the best option for the former is Cam Newton, who Ron Rivera developed into an MVP in Carolina but inexplicably won’t touch as the boss in Washington.

The unfortunate reality is that, barring a Dak Prescott-esque late-round rookie falling into their laps, Rivera’s inability to properly identify and/or develop at least a long-term option at QB will cut short his stay in D.C.

— Rob Woodfork

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