NFL

Washington Commanders 2023 NFL Season Preview and Picks

By Scott Kacsmar

Washington fans, the end of the reign of terror known as team owner Daniel Snyder is here. The Commanders have new ownership, and they may soon have another team name, but will they ever have another exciting season to watch?

You have to go back to 1991 to find the last time Washington won more than 10 games in a season, easily the longest drought in the NFL. The odds of that ending this year are poor as Washington is firmly slotted in last place in the NFC East at the top sportsbooks, and the team’s over/under win total is only 6.5 wins.

Not surprisingly, it is a curious quarterback situation that has the outlook looking bleak for Washington. We look back at the team’s mistakes in 2022, the critical offseason changes, the quarterback competition, and what the best Commanders’ bets are for 2023.

2022 Season Recap: One Great Upset No Thanks to Carson Wentz   

The Commanders were the latest team to make the mistake of thinking Carson Wentz is a viable starting quarterback in the NFL. After a 2-4 start that led to Wentz finishing next to last in ESPN’s QBR (32.9), he had an injured finger that happened in the team’s 12-7 win over Chicago. That’s right, even in a victory over a team that would finish 3-14, the No. 1 pick in the draft, and No. 32 on defense, Wentz led his offense to 12 points.

The injury was a blessing in disguise as the team needed an upgrade with Wentz continuing to take too many sacks and not produce enough offense. Taylor Heinicke took over in Week 7 and the team immediately responded. Washington would go on a 5-1-1 streak before the bye, enjoying Heinicke’s improved decision-making, mobility, and third-down conversions.

Heinicke was not playing great football by any means, but he was serviceable and a clear upgrade over Wentz. He also engineered one of the finest upsets of the season when Washington won 32-21 in Philadelphia on a Monday night when the Eagles were 8-0 and the talk of the NFL.

The Eagles were outstanding at ending games before halftime and cruising in the second half, but Heinicke helped Washington convert 12 of its first 16 third-down opportunities, a remarkable night against that pass rush.

However, things took a turn for the worse in the playoff hunt when the Commanders failed to get a win over the rival Giants despite having a bye week in between the games. The first one ended in a 20-20 overtime tie where neither team ever had that great of a shot to end it before the stalemate. But in the rematch at home on a Sunday night, Heinicke only put up 12 points and failed on the game-tying drive at the end, losing 20-12 and dropping the team to 7-6-1.

That was the season right there. If the Commanders could take care of the Giants, they would have been 9-5 and in outstanding shape for a wild card. Instead, they were 7-6-1 and in a rough spot going to San Francisco, an elite team. Heinicke struggled with some turnovers against what was the No. 1 defense in 2022, and he was benched for Wentz, who had healed.

Head coach Ron Rivera made a regrettable decision to start Wentz again in Week 17 against Cleveland with hopes for the playoffs still out there. Wentz was awful in the loss, eliminating the team from contention.

In Week 18, the Commanders gave rookie Sam Howell a start at quarterback, because why not? Not much was expected against a good Dallas team, but he made some plays happen and relied heavily on the defense to dominate in a 26-6 win to finish 8-8-1.

Not sure how that was enough to give Howell the job going into 2023, but we’ll see what happens there.

Offseason Review

Going into his 4th season as head coach in Washington, Ron Rivera is going to have to start showing improvement to save his job. Thanks to winning some historically bad divisions in his career, it seems to get overlooked that Rivera has produced a winning record in just 3-of-12 seasons in his career despite being over .500 overall (98-90-2). It is one of the oddest cases in NFL history, but this can happen when you mix a 15-1 season with a lot of 7-win mediocrity.

For Rivera to make a splash, he needs his offense to improve. Wentz was a predictable, 1-year failure, and the team has moved on accordingly. But Heinicke is also gone, joining the Falcons this season in Atlanta. The new quarterback battle is between Howell and Jacoby Brissett; the latter did a very respectable job in Cleveland last season before he was benched for Deshaun Watson when his suspension ended.

We will get into the quarterbacks in the next section, but the biggest move here has to be the hiring of offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy from Kansas City. His name has been in the head coaching searches the last several years, he has gone on many interviews, but no one has deemed him worthy of being their head coach yet.

Some very questionable people have been hired in that time that Bieniemy would have seemed like a better option to try, but let’s face the facts on this one. Bieniemy never felt like the engine fueling Kansas City’s record-setting offense. That was the brain trust of Andy Reid, and the incredible talent of Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, and others.

Even on the infamous “Jet Chip Wasp” call on third-and-15 in Super Bowl 54, it was Mahomes, not Bieniemy, who asked to run the play that led to a 44-yard completion to Hill and led the Chiefs back to win that championship.

For Bieniemy, this job is his audition to show that he can call the plays and that he can produce results without some of the greatest offensive players in NFL history. Improving a Washington offense that is not without talent but has quarterback issues would be a major step to fast-tracking his path to being a head coach like he wants.

McLaurin is an excellent No. 1 wide receiver, more can be done with Curtis Samuel, Jahan Dotson is only getting started, Brian Robinson and Antonio Gibson are a good running back duo, and Logan Thomas is a solid tight end if he can ever stay healthy.

There are worse jobs out there to take, but it’s not going to take Bieniemy long to figure out his new quarterback and tight end are not up to the level of Mahomes and Kelce, may be the best combo to ever do it.

As for the defense, Jack Del Rio gets another shot at coordinator after his unit bailed him out with so many turnovers in wins against Philadelphia and Dallas. But the Commanders did not play a ton of great offenses in 2022, so their numbers are a bit inflated for the season.

After spending so many high draft picks on the front seven over the years, Washington used two high picks on the secondary this year with Emmanuel Forbes and Jartavius Martin at the corner. They could start Week 1.

But offense is where the Commanders have to make the most strides, and no coordinator may be under more pressure to succeed this year than Bieniemy.

This Year’s Area of Interest: Quarterback Decision  

There is no doubt Rivera’s tenure has not been that successful because of starting too many quarterbacks. At least in Carolina he consistently had Cam Newton for all those years. The Commanders keep running through options at the game’s most important position, and now they have another choice to make for 2023.

Sam Howell was only a 5th-round pick in 2022, and such players usually are not in the mix for Week 1 starting jobs in their second season. Howell was a 3-year starter at North Carolina where he threw for 10,283 yards and 92 touchdowns, so he does have starting experience – just not much at the NFL level.

In his lone start against a good Dallas defense last year, Howell completed 11-of-19 passes for 169 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception. The Commanders can live with that kind of game manager performance against top-tier competition.

But Howell also ran the ball 5 times for 35 yards, 4 first downs, and a touchdown. That part of his game was present at North Carolina too, and utilizing a mobile passer is certainly something Bieniemy will want to do after having Mahomes in Kansas City. Rivera also won’t mind running the quarterback given his history with Newton in Carolina.

Howell is an interesting prospect, but he would be one of the most unheralded Week 1 starters going into a season in some time. As for Jacoby Brissett, he has plenty of starting experience in the NFL, but it usually comes in lousy situations like when Andrew Luck had a mysterious season-ending injury (2017 Colts), when Luck abruptly retired in August (2019 Colts), and while Deshaun Watson was suspended for his sexual misconduct allegations (2022 Browns). In all, Brissett has started 48 games and has 48 touchdown passes.

But last year was the best Brissett has ever played in Cleveland. The offense was scoring early in the year, he was thriving with Amari Cooper, Nick Chubb, and got a breakout year out of tight end David Njoku that Bieniemy should appreciate. But the Browns made the understandable decision to bench Brissett for Watson after his suspension, and it backfired as the offense tanked the rest of the season.

The Commanders signed Brissett to a 1-year deal worth $10 million, which is solid money for only a backup. But should Brissett start the season? This one feels like it should be a very open competition and the best player in training camp and the preseason should earn the job that way. The Commanders do not have any real investment in Howell to justify handing him the job. Let’s see him earn it.

Some sportsbooks also seem to be thinking this is unsettled. At DraftKings, you can bet on the NFC East leader in passing yards. Howell is +1000 and Brissett is not far behind at +1600, which is actually ahead of New York’s Daniel Jones (+2000). The other backup quarterbacks in the division are all +10000.

You have to go back to 2017 to find the last time Washington only started one quarterback all season, and that was the end of the Kirk Cousins era. Chances are, we will see Howell and Brissett at different points this season. But the Commanders need to make sure they pick the right guy to start Week 1 this time.

Best Bets for the 2023 Commanders

There are going to be some new teams in the NFC playoff field because the Buccaneers, Seahawks, Giants, and Vikings were all pressing their luck in 2022. But Washington’s battle with the Giants to stay out of the NFC East cellar is a tough sell for this team being in the playoffs. It just makes more sense that Daniel Jones would take off better in his second year under Brian Daboll than one of these quarterbacks in Washington will succeed for Bieniemy and Rivera.

Oddly enough, sweeping the Giants is probably the No. 1 way for Washington to hit the over of 6.5 wins. A failure to win home games against Arizona and Chicago early in the season would spell doom for this Washington team, so it better play well early instead of the usual slow start for Rivera teams. Washington has not started better than 2-4 since 2018.

But this team is going to be an underdog in most of the games, and even some of the most winnable opponents are road trips to Denver, Atlanta, New England, Seattle, and the Rams – teams that can very well be improved in 2023 and some challenging venues to play.

The 8-8-1 record last year was already built on upset wins over the Cowboys and Eagles in the division and saving a tie with the Giants. One or two of those could turn into sweeps this season as turnovers largely did those playoff teams in.

As a non-believer in this coaching staff, the under looks like the right call here. But maybe the best bet on the Commanders is to take Terry McLaurin’s over in receiving yards (900.5). He has gone over 900 yards in all four seasons of his career, and he had 1,191 yards last season despite the quarterbacks only averaging 222.5 yards per game.

NFL Pick: Washington Commanders under 6.5 wins (-118 at FanDuel)

NFL Pick: Terry McLaurin Over 900.5 Receiving Yards (-112 at FanDuel)

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