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Hope springs eternal during Commanders’ OTAs

It’s not controversial to suggest that, in most NFL cities, hope springs eternal during the offseason. Whatever did or didn’t go your way last season is long forgotten as renewed hope and a few new players pave the way to only the most optimistic outlook for the upcoming campaign.

In related news, the Washington Commanders, led by newly anointed franchise quarterback Carson Wentz, took to the practice field for organized-team activities this week, giving those not employed by the franchise a first look at the North Dakota State product in action. And while much of the news cycle continues to focus on the players who weren’t in attendance, such as Terry McLaurin (contract holdout), Chase Young (recovering from injury) and Montez Sweat (excused absence), there was still an abundance of storylines worthing of time and attention.

Curtis Samuel’s first season in Washington was marred by injuries, so seeing him running routes and catching passes (albeit in shorts and without pads on) was a welcome sight. Antonio Gibson somehow looks both leaner and stronger heading into his third season, which an optimist could see as a positive sign as the talented running back looks to get a grasp on a fumbling problem that marred his sophomore season. And then there is obviously the infusion of new talent that arrived via the NFL Draft, such as wideout Jahan Dotson, running back Brian Robinson Jr. and tight end Cole Turner, each of which has an opportunity to play a central role for the burgundy and gold this year.


Commanders hope three’s a magic number

Anyone who has spent any amount of time around the sport would agree that the NFL Draft is the closest thing to Christmas morning for professional football.

During this happiest of holiday offseasons, the Commanders went with a theme as they selected their newest additions. Washington’s 2022 rookie class features a third receiver (Penn State’s Jahan Dotson), a third defensive tackle (Alabama’s Phidarian Mathis), a third running back (Alabama’s Brian Robinson Jr.), a third safety (Louisiana Lafayette’s Percy Butler) and a third quarterback (North Carolina’s Sam Howell).

Since the offseason began, Washington has gotten a new name for its franchise, the Commanders, and now Ron Rivera and friends have an infusion of talent to add to the mix of established veterans as they head into Year 3.

Rookie camp provides the coaching staff and talent evaluators their first chance to see the youngsters in burgundy and gold. While little can be taken away from kids running through a few drills in shorts in May, it’s still an exciting time for these young athletes who are just beginning to realize their dreams.


Welcome to the Carson Wentz show

My first season covering the local professional football franchise was 2005. During that time, it’s safe to say Washington hasn’t had much in the way of stability at the NFL’s most important position. In fact, the list of quarterbacks who have started at least one game during the last 16 seasons is downright depressing: 

Mark Brunell. Patrick Ramsey. Jason Campbell. Todd Collins. Donovan McNabb. Rex Grossman. John Beck. Robert Griffin III. Kirk Cousins. Colt McCoy. Alex Smith. Josh Johnson. Mark Sanchez. Case Keenum. Dwayne Haskins. Kyle Allen. Taylor Heinicke. Ryan Fitzpatrick. Garrett Gilbert.

When the Commanders (that’s going to take a while to get used to) take the field this fall, they will do so with Carson Wentz behind center. That’s because, after missing out on Matthew Stafford last year and not being able to entice Russell Wilson to join the burgundy and gold, the Commanders struck a deal with the Indianapolis Colts to acquire the second-overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. The details:

Colts receive: 2022 second-round pick (No. 42), 2022 third-round pick (No. 73), conditional 2023 third-round pick
Washington receives: QB Carson Wentz, 2022 second-round pick (No. 47), 2022 seventh-round pick (No. 240)

Washington becomes Wentz’s third team in three seasons, which means he’s looking for some semblance of stability as well. Historically, he’s known for a strong arm while struggling, at times, with accuracy and decision making. Will this marriage of convenience between Carson and the Commanders stand the test of time? Or will both be on the rebound once again in the not-too-distant future? For better or for worse, we’re about to find out.


Unheralded players pave way to preseason victory over Cincinnati

When the Washington Football Team hosted the Cincinnati Bengals for a preseason game, it marked the return of the local fanbase back into FedEx Field. After the pandemic forced the majority of last season’s contests to be played behind closed doors in empty stadiums, the gameday atmosphere was much more festive with burgundy and gold clad supporters involved — even if it was ultimately a meaningless exhibition.

And what those fans witnessed, especially when it came to the four drives involving Washington’s first-team offense, was a mixed bag. Quarterback/future beard model Ryan Fitzpatrick completed seven of 13 attempts for 96 yards, but failed to lead the team into the endzone for a second-consecutive outing. Running back Antonio Gibson, receiver Terry McLaurin and tight end Logan Thomas all relatively quiet showings as well.

Once the starters were done for the night, rookie running back Jaret Patterson, the undrafted undersized roster hopeful, shined brightest as he carried the ball 16 times for 71 yards and a touchdown. He might have been a long shot when he was initially invited to rookie camp, but Patterson is most definitely viewed through a different lens these days. No one would be surprised if he actually made the 53-man roster at this point.

While his numbers might not have been overly flashy, second-year wideout Antonio Gandy-Golden also had a strong showing — with three receptions for 38 yards and a highlight-worthy back-shoulder catch on a two-point conversion. Considering just how little Gandy-Golden did during his rookie season, the player and his coaches must be pleased to see him contribute.

Ultimately, that’s what these contests are all about — staying healthy and getting an in-depth look at the players vying for a spot in the bottom half of the roster. Sending fans home with a 17-13 win is truly just an added bonus.


Rookie camp brings new faces, hope to Washington

While an unexpected division title and playoff berth was a welcome distraction, head coach Ron Rivera and the rest of the Washington Football Team brain trust knows there’s plenty more work to be done before the franchise can be considered a regular contender. 

That’s why something as simple as 16 youngsters donning burgundy and gold while taking the practice field for the first time is so noteworthy for coaches and fans alike. Everyone from the team’s 2021 first-round draft pick, Kentucky linebacker Jamin Davis, to an undrafted free agent like running back Jaret Patterson represents hope of better days. 

One of these players could become a future franchise cornerstone or a Pro Bowler. Perhaps there is a hidden gem or a future team captain in the mix. Optimism reigns supreme in most NFL cities this time of year, but really, after two decades of mediocrity, maybe we should cut WFT fans a little slack and let them dream a little dream. 


No-name quarterback nearly leads nameless team to postseason glory

The Washington Football Team was in a position to win the pitiful NFC East and a trip to the playoffs thanks largely to one of the best defensive lines in football and inspired play from future Comeback Player of the Year Alex Smith. 

Since 2018, Washington is 11-5 when Smith starts and 6-27 when he does not. While his numbers during his time in our nation’s capital have never been flashy, Smith continually does just enough to put his team in a position to win. Following this trend, Washington went 5-1 during Smith’s starts and 2-8 when Dwayne Haskins/Kyle Allen led the offense during the 2020 season. 

With Smith sidelined due to injury as they hosted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during a wild card weekend, Washington was forced to turn to a fourth starting quarterback this season. 

Enter Taylor Heinicke. 

The XFL backup who signed with the franchise 32 days earlier, turned in the most enjoyable performance by a Washington Football Team quarterback during the 2020 season as he fought valiantly before a national audience in a 31-23 loss. 

On the night, Heinicke completed 26 of 44 attempts for 306 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. The Old Dominion product also rushed six times for 46 yards, including a breathtaking, highlight of the night eight-yard score that legitimately made football fans everywhere stop and say, “How is this kid truly going toe-to-toe with the greatest quarterback in NFL history?” 

While head coach Ron Rivera and friends will naturally be disappointed in the loss, this particular defeat feels different than most. Rather than heading into yet another bleak offseason, this entertaining ending to a unique season might just signal better days ahead for the burgundy and gold. 


After dispatching uninterested Eagles, Washington is playoff bound

For the first time since 2015, the Washington Football Team is headed to the postseason, thanks to a 20-14 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles (who were eliminated from the playoffs one week earlier and were more than happy to get this meaningless game over as quickly as possible).

While the contest was anything but pretty, head coach Ron Rivera and his players should absolutely refuse to apologize for the way this game — and this season — played out. When Washington was 2-7 and seemingly destined for another season as one of the league’s laughingstocks, the nameless football team rallied together and turned it around.

Led by quite possibly the best defensive line in pro football, Washington rallied to win five of their final seven games while holding opponents to 20 points or less in each outing. And with Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen keeping opposing offenses on the heels, Washington’s offense was able to cobble together enough output each week to get the job done.

During recent weeks, quarterback Alex Smith, running back Antonio Gibson and receiver Terry McLaurin all battled various injuries and ailments, which made it even more difficult for offensive coordinator Scott Turner to scheme up ways to put points on the board. During Week 17, the Football Team actually scored on its opening drive for the first time all season, which is both impressive and depressing at the same time.

After safety Kamren Curl intercepted rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts on the Eagles’ second drive of the game, Washington added a field goal to take a commanding 10-0 lead. Sadly, the surprising first half output was too good to last, and Hurts scored a rushing touchdown on each of Philly’s next two drives as the Eagles took a 14-10 lead. But inspired play by Washington’s defense, as well as tactical decisions by the Eagles coaching staff (like benching the one guy who put points on the board), insured that Philadelphia’s offense remained dormant the rest of the evening.

Amazingly, Washington will now host Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a playoff game next Saturday night. That’s a sentence absolutely no one would have believed a year ago when Rivera was announced as the new head coach of a 3-13 embarassment …

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