Commanders in familiar spot, but already running out of time

LANDOVER, Md. -- The Washington Commanders find themselves, once more, with a disappointing record early in the season. And while they’ve become accustomed to slow starts, they’re not used to this: Three other teams in the NFC East that are playing much better.

That will make it harder for Washington to do what it had done the past two seasons: climb out of the canyon it’s starting to dig. After five games, the 1-4 Commanders already are three games out of third place heading into Thursday’s game at the Chicago Bears (8:15 p.m. ET, Amazon Prime).

“We have dug a hole but at the same time there’s a lot of games left,” Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz said, “and the NFL is crazy so for us, don’t look at all that.”

They shouldn’t look because the picture isn’t pretty. Washington has scored 35 points in its past three games. The defense has kept them in games during that span -- ranking sixth in yards allowed, eighth in third-down defense but 20th in scoring -- but because it’s caused one turnover in five games, it doesn’t provide big-play help.

The past two seasons they dug out. In 2020, they were 2-6 but in second place by only 1.5 games. Washington finished 5-3 and captured the division title by one game.

Last year, Washington stumbled to that same record. The Commanders were only 1.5 games out of a wild card berth and, after a four-game win streak, held one of those spots. Injuries and COVID-19 issues combined to wreck the final month.

This year, being back in a similar spot adds up to a frustrating start for an organization desperate for something positive. It’s trying to win back a fan base amid a congressional investigation into owner Dan Snyder and also try to secure funding for a new stadium. The franchise, in its first season with a new name, hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2005 campaign.

Washington is 18-36 since the start of the 2019 season. It's had a lot to rebuild, but also should be better than 1-4.

The team's struggles become harder to accept with the New York Giants, under new coach Brian Daboll, at 4-1, and the Eagles at 5-0 with second-year coach Nick Sirianni.

“We’re going into Week 5, you have to find a way to overcome a lot of those adversities,” Washington receiver Terry McLaurin said, “if you want to have a chance to be competitive and have a chance at the playoffs at all.”

Washington played without its starting tight end (Logan Thomas), top scoring receiver (Jahan Dotson) and is on its third center. However, the teams they’ve lost to the past two weeks, including Dallas, have had their own injury issues.

Rivera’s teams have typically played better in the second half of the season. In Carolina from 2011-2018, the Panthers were 25-14 in regular season games in December and January, the fifth-best mark during that period. In Washington, his teams are 5-6 in those months, a record marred by a four-game skid in December 2021 when their lineup was decimated.

They can point to that second-half success as reason for optimism. But, McLaurin said, at some point there’s only one way to dig out of a hole.

“Win,” he said.

“Everyone is going through some adversity,” McLaurin said. “I wouldn’t want to hang our hat on that as an excuse, that it’s the reason we’re not getting the job done. We’re all NFL players. You have to step up when your number is called.

“The good teams find a way to make it happen.”

The team's potential has been discussed the past two years. But some players are tired of hearing about that, too.

“Potential is a word you use for someone who hasn’t done anything,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said. “That doesn't matter how much potential we have unless we actually do something.”

After Thursday, Washington plays the Green Bay Packers, at the Indianapolis Colts, versus the Minnesota Vikings and at the Philadelphia. A turnaround won’t happen if the Commanders continue to play as they have. They’ve committed 20 penalties the past two games combined. They couldn’t run the ball Sunday -- 17 carries for 43 yards. And though Wentz bounced back from a tough outing in Dallas to throw for 359 yards and two touchdowns Sunday, his day ended with a goal-line interception.

Nobody deserves to be immune from criticism. That includes the front office and the roster construction -- particularly on the offensive line -- and the coaches and players.

When asked after the game where his team goes from here, Rivera said, “Up. The only way to go is up.”

He then said he wasn’t going to panic, knowing there are 12 games remaining.

“This is never going to happen overnight,” Rivera said. “When’s it going to happen? I don’t know. There is a sense of urgency, and I hope everybody in that locker room has the same sense that I have.”

But the question already becomes: If that turnaround doesn’t happen immediately, will there be enough time later?