Commanders Corner: Entering the bye unable to sell optimism

Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell (14) walks off the field after turning the ball over on downs during the second half of an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys Thursday, Nov. 23, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)(AP/Michael Ainsworth)

The good news for the Washington Commanders is that, after four straight losses where the average score has been 38-18, they go on their bye week. The bad news? They have to come back and play four more games.

The Burgundy & Gold are on the precipice of playoff elimination, but it can’t happen for at least two more weeks despite the way this team has played since evening up its record at 3-3 with a victory in Atlanta. Sunday’s 45-15 loss to Miami had one bright spot: the game ended in under three hours of real time. That’s largely due to the fact the Dolphins were running the ball almost exclusively (20 of 30 second half plays and 15 of their final 18 plays were runs).

Enjoy the bye week friends, because three of the remaining four games will be against playoff contenders.

Howell About That: Sam completed 12-23 passes for a season-low 127 yards while tossing a pick-six for the third straight week. This time, it happened in the first quarter as opposed to serving as the cherry on top of a disappointing defeat. But he did make multiple plays out of nothing, ranging from a 33-yard dart to Curtis Samuel that set up the team’s first touchdown to a scramble on fourth down for the Commanders’ second (and final) score of the afternoon.

Howell’s current passer rating of 85.6 ranks 23rd in the league, right behind Tennessee’s Will Levis and immediately ahead of Cleveland’s Deshaun Watson. Both of those QBs have played just six games this year, so among “regular starters,” (10+ games played) Howell is right behind Rams QB Matthew Stafford and right ahead of Indianapolis QB Gardner Minshew.

Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood: Boys and girls, the word of the day is “hamstring.” As in, Brian Robinson Jr. had 53 yards rushing on seven carries in the first half before being sidelined by a bad “hamstring.” The running game was somewhat “hamstrung” without Washington’s lead back, as Antonio Gibson and Chris Rodriguez Jr. combined for 64 yards on 17 carries. Gibson continues to be valuable as a third down safety valve with four catches for 37 yards.

Pass Catch Fever: Whither Terry McLaurin? For just the second time in his career, the receiver this offense is built around was held to zero catches (on a season-low three targets). The 2022 Pro Bowler is on pace for a career-low in yards (907) and yards per catch. Curtis Samuel led the team with four receptions for 65 yards while both of Jahan Dotson’s receptions moved the chains on third down.

Third and Forgettable: The Commanders converted 6-14 money downs, with four runs and 10 passes getting called. Howell completed six of nine passes with four conversions while also sneaking once from the one-yard line. He was sacked once and faced uncomfortable pressure early and often in the pocket. His top option? Curtis Samuel and Jahan Dotson each made two catches on two targets for two conversions.

Chris Rodriguez Jr. ran the ball three times on third down in the second half, ripping off a 15-yard gain on a 3rd and 3 while getting stuffed on his other two attempts (two-yard loss on 3rd & 1, gain of one on the game’s final play). Yardage breakdown: 3-6 on short-yardage, 1-1 when needing four to six yards, 2-7 on long-yardage. For the season: 30-47 (64%), 12-32 (38%), 23-90 (26%).

D earns another F: The post-Jack Del Rio era began by allowing a 78-yard touchdown pass on the third Miami offensive play of the afternoon. Then, the defense coughed up a 60-yard TD strike in the second quarter. The Dolphins converted 5-7 third downs in the first half and then turned all-Woody Hayes in the second half, burning clock while tacking on two more touchdowns. The Dolphins could have topped 50 points if they needed to, and once again, when the Washington defense needed to make stops, it couldn’t.

Special Situations: Tress Way averaged 42.8 yards on his five punts while Joey Slye’s three kickoffs went for touchbacks. Slye converted his extra point while missing his only field goal attempt from 53 yards. Jamison Crowder had an 11-yard punt return while punt coverage allowed returns of five and seven yards. There were no kickoff returns for either team.

Flying Flags: Only three penalties for 31 yards. It was almost as if the officiating crew — once the game was a double-digit affair — decided to let this one play out and wrap up early. Two whistles came on special teams (holding and offsides) while the lone defensive call was a pass interference. Benjamin St. Juste’s PI gives him seven infractions on the season, tying him with Charles Leno for the team lead.

The offensive/special teams hold was the 12th of the season, one behind false starts for the team lead. Most costly foul? The pass interference on St. Juste turned what would have been a 3rd & 7 at the Washington 34 into a first down inside the red zone. Miami would score five plays later while melting most of the remaining first half clock to take a 31-7 lead into intermission.

Digesting the Division: Philadelphia (10-2) remains in first place of the NFC East and holds on to the top seed in the conference despite their 23-point loss to San Francisco. It will be intriguing to see those two teams race to the finish, with the Niners (one game back at this time) holding the tiebreaker. Dallas (9-3) owns the No. 5 seed and the top wild card spot with a game against the Eagles coming up Sunday. The New York Giants (4-8) are in third place of the division and 12th in the conference thanks to a better NFC mark than Chicago. Washington (4-9) is 14th in the conference but can still climb out of the cellar with a hot streak plus help.

Elimination Island: Carolina (1-11), in coming up short against Tampa Bay this past Sunday, became the first team to fall out of contention in the NFL. New England (2-10) is hanging on by one wicked thin thread, as is Arizona. Washington’s safe for at least one more week.

Comparing the Quartets: The AFC North, even with Cleveland and Pittsburgh losing, still owns the best composite record at 29-19, two-and-a-half games better than the 27-22 NFC East. The NFC South remains the division of depression at 17-31, although the collapse of Buffalo/Jets/New England (1-12 since the start of November) has sunk the AFC East to 21-27 on the year. The AFC owns a 37-29 edge.

In the Booth: FOX sent the No. 3 team of Adam Amin and Mark Schlereth to FedEx Field; it’s Amin’s second Commanders game while Schlereth has now called three Washington broadcasts (tying him with the trio of Andrew Catalon, Tiki Barber and Matt Ryan, who are still recovering from seeing this team three times over a five-week span). Amin and Schlereth led the announcing crews with four Commanders games called last year (including one game each with a different broadcast partner) and they look poised to take the lead again this fall. Condolences.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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