ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Commanders enter the offseason with questions that will determine their short- and long-term future: ownership, offensive playcaller and quarterback. And they don’t enter it lacking confidence.
“I feel we’re very close,” running back Brian Robinson Jr. said.
“I don’t think we’re missing anything,” receiver Curtis Samuel said. “We just got to execute better, especially in the red zone.”
In finishing 8-8-1 -- a sixth consecutive non-winning season -- Washington showed growth in several areas. The Commanders’ defense finished third in yards and seventh in points per game. But the offense was 20th in yards and 26th in points.
Coach Ron Rivera, who finished his third season, said he likes the direction they’re headed. But that direction also depends on key questions being answered.
The Commanders announced in October they were up for sale and multiple bids were submitted near the end of December. There’s still no guarantee that owners Dan and Tanya Snyder will sell the franchise, but the expectation from team sources is that they will. But then the questions become: To whom and when? The earliest a new owner would be approved is late March at the league meetings.
With a 22-27-1 record overall, Rivera might have been in trouble this offseason. The franchise's uncertainty likely will give him another season to take a bigger step, but it also means he’d have to impress another owner in a short period of time. He’s not alone.
“When new people come in, they don’t really have allegiance to you,” receiver Terry McLaurin said. “That goes for me as well. … If there’s new ownership, if there’s not new ownership, I think the mindset still has to be to come in and earn the job."
Rivera went through a similar situation in Carolina when Jerry Richardson sold the team after the 2018 season. Rivera was retained but then was fired with four games left in the following season; the Panthers were 5-7 and had lost four in a row.
Rivera said his approach won’t be impacted by a possible sale.
“Well, the biggest thing is in Carolina when I went through that, it was pretty much ‘Ron, you've got to do business as normal,’” Rivera said. “That's what we tried to do. We tried to put all the pieces into place like we normally would.”
The Commanders will fetch a lot more than the $4.65 billion it took to acquire the Denver Broncos. Washington can also offer a new owner land -- where the stadium currently resides in Maryland; its 254-acre practice facility; and the rights to 200 acres of land in Woodbridge, Va.
Washington needs to find a new offensive coordinator after firing Scott Turner on Tuesday. The Commanders would like to keep the same scheme if possible -- they did not view the system as the problem, but rather wanted a more consistent run-based identity. There was frustration over the playcalls and how they didn’t always match what Rivera wanted or what the talent suggested. Players were frustrated.
Washington will interview outside candidates, but if it decides to promote from within then quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese will get a long look, a team source said Tuesday. With a staff heading into a critical fourth season -- likely with a new owner -- Washington would prefer to limit disruption as much as possible. If there is a new system, it has to fit the personnel or else it could lead to too many changes and a more challenging learning curve.
Washington has not said it will release Carson Wentz, but it doesn’t need to say anything. Considering he would count $26.7 million on the salary cap if retained, Wentz almost assuredly will be cut, a team source said. If his play had been better, and the team had won more games with him, then Washington could restructure his contract to keep him for a couple more seasons.
However, Wentz did not provide what Washington hoped for: a consistent downfield passing attack. There were a variety of factors that impacted Wentz, from poor protection and, in his first six starts, the lack of a consistent run game. Washington traded for him because, general manager Martin Mayhew said, the Commanders felt Wentz fit what they wanted -- a strong-armed quarterback who could hit downfield throws off play-action.
That leads to the next question: What will they do this offseason? Sam Howell is the only quarterback under contract next season guaranteed to return. The rookie fifth-round pick started the season finale and completed 11 of 19 passes for 169 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He also ran five times for 35 yards and a score. One game isn’t enough for them to call the fifth-round pick a day one starter in ’23, but it is enough to be intrigued -- just as they have been with him since before the draft. One team source said at the time he was the quarterback they liked most.
They’ll take that admittedly small sample size, combined with what they saw from him during practices and in meetings, and compare that to available quarterbacks in the draft.
“We compare it with what's going to be available,” Mayhew said. “What we've seen in practice from him has been very good. It translated very well to the game which that has not always been the case with other players in the past. He's just got a very, very calm demeanor. The guy has the right attitude, he's got a very quiet confidence about him. It's promising and it's good to have Sam as an option as we move forward.”
Taylor Heinicke is a pending free agent -- and someone the Commanders view best as a high-end backup. Both sides would like to continue the relationship, but it wouldn’t make sense for Heinicke to stick around if Washington planned to draft a rookie in the first few rounds -- or if the team acquired another veteran to compete for the job.
For now, Rivera said Washington will consider all situations. After starting eight quarterbacks in Rivera’s first three seasons the Commanders must settle on someone -- and receive better, and more consistent, production. To help, they must fix the line. But they like their talent at receiver, tight end and running back.
“Going into it, I think we're in a much better place,” Rivera said.
McLaurin, who has played with 10 quarterbacks in his four years, said finding stability at the position is “extremely important.”
“Not just for myself but the cohesiveness of our entire group,” he said. “All the quarterbacks that we’ve had this year did different things great, but having a consistency there would help everyone.”
Defensive tackle Daron Payne
Payne headlines Washington’s pending free agents, thanks to a career-best season in which he recorded 11.5 sacks and 21 tackles for a loss. He and Jonathan Allen formed a strong inside pair for Washington, which ranked seventh in points and third in yards per game allowed.
The first step will be Rivera meeting with the Snyders to get a sense of their offseason budget in an offseason full of uncertainty. Once they know that, then they can go to Payne’s representatives.
"You know what I want, man. It's self-explanatory," Payne said.
Washington considered trading Payne in the offseason, unsure if it could retain him. But unless they were blown away by an offer, league and team sources said at the time they weren’t going to trade him -- knowing they would likely get a third-round compensatory pick in 2024 if he ended up leaving via free agency.
The Commanders initially were reluctant to pay him what they paid Allen in 2021 -- a four-year deal that averaged $18 million per year. But Payne’s 2022 season increased his projected salary.
“The guy played outstanding football this year,” Mayhew said. “He's always been disruptive. He's always been in the backfield, he's always been around the ball. Well, this was the first year he really was finishing the way that he finished this year. It'd be difficult to move forward without him, obviously. We have a plan and we definitely want to get him back.”
Washington also could use the franchise tag on Payne, which would cost $18.95 million.
The Commanders also must plan not only for Payne but possibly Montez Sweat, a free agent in 2022, and Chase Young, a free agent in 2025. If Washington goes without an expensive quarterback on the roster in 2023, it has more flexibility to retain Payne. The Commanders currently have approximately $13 million available under the cap, but cutting Wentz alone frees up $26.7 million.
Washington also wants to retain linebacker Cole Holcomb, who's coming off a right foot injury that sidelined him for the final 10 games. It can also extend safety Kamren Curl, entering his fourth year, in the offseason.