The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of the team.
After two-plus weeks of training camp we had finally reached the annual football homage to Allen Iverson where everyone is officially done talking about practice. Not a game. Practice.
Hope, hype and tunnel vision become a little too comfortable and as narratives form a game isn't just needed; it's necessary.
Everyone getting their trigger fingers warmed up is just part of the normal course of action.
So, with preseason Game 1 behind us, we can finally start making some conclusions about where this team is without it being about what happened in practice. Not a game. Practice.
I subscribe to the idea that two things can be true at once. Wentz was inaccurate in the early stretch of training camp. At the same time, the coaches shrugged off the media characterization of how Wentz was performing and said the functioning of the offense is far more complicated than boiling it down to the new quarterback on his third team in three years.
With that as a backdrop, Wentz getting 22 reps in the Carolina game felt more high leverage than your typical debut in an exhibition game. One interception, a couple of coverage sacks or three nothingburger drives would have only amplified the critique.
But that did not happen. And be honest (all of you): it was a relief. After a quick three-and-out and a second drive that ended in an ill-timed fumble, Wentz was given the opportunity to show a little exhibition resilience. If Wentz is productive this season, it is not an understatement to point back to his third drive as the spot where everyone had the proverbial sigh of relief. There was a mid-range strike to Terry McLaurin, a near miss on a would be score to Jahan Dotson (that got a penalty) and a command of the unit that the entire fanbase certainly needed to see and (if they are being honest) maybe some of those in the building needed to as well.
He fumbled the ball way too many times a year ago. While technique and decisiveness were clearly part of the issue, he also carried a larger than expected part of the load. Now that Brian Robinson is here (more on him below) the onus will be on Gibson to be a playmaker and caretaker.
Since we are talking about what it meant for Wentz to have a 10-13 debut, then it is fair to wonder what it means for Gibson to have a fumble a year after he had fumbling issues.
I went on the Carolina pregame show and got more questions about Sam Howell than any other player on the team. He did break numerous passing records at North Carolina and grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that they had a special interest. But now I got to see what they saw.
There is a strange sensation when you see a player who sometimes plays smaller than their build and others who seem to get larger. In practice, Howell looks his height, almost as if he has to get up on his tippy toes to make certain throws. Oddly, in the game setting, it was as if Howell grew four inches. I know it's an exhibition game, but erasing a 14-point fourth quarter deficit is still impressive. Because his UNC team wasn't as stacked with skill position players in his final season, Howell ran the ball way more than he did his first two seasons. It looks like that experience is paying dividends already.
Of the two standout rookie debuts, I was more surprised by the effectiveness of Robinson. He has an unusual build that is more lean and upright than what I pictured when they drafted him out of Alabama. But between the tackles, Robinson becomes a large presence. After the game, he told me while the plays might look pretty, he knows he has a lot of work to do to set the runs up better.
In both Howell and Robinson's case, these were positive developments. In Howell's case, no one should wonder about what this means for the current quarterback depth chart (the answer is nothing). I can see where Robinson's play combined with Gibson's fumble and replacement with the starters could lead to conclusions. In my opinion, it is far too early to even go there, and if I know anything about Ron Rivera, he is not a coach who makes rash decisions.
The O-Line and Tight Ends
The offensive line did its part which has become the norm under coach John Matsko. That said, I firmly believe that attrition in this league can't be overcome in perpetuity, so here's to Matsko having a little more luck with having his guys healthy than he had a season ago or even through the first few weeks of camp.
For those of you into deep roster summer competition, getting the converted quarterback Armani Rogers and undrafted rookie Curtis Hodges reps with the ones was a treat. I've felt through two-plus weeks of practice that Rogers may be a complete steal. The reality is a healthy Logan Thomas and John Bates are the secured top two tight ends. So, we are talking about one, maybe two roster spots available. But this might be the most interesting competition of the summer and if Wentz keeps looking Rogers' way like he did early on Saturday. That may help push the decision in a certain direction.
I get it, players who know the numbers game and are longshots to make the final 53 feel like they have to do something to get the attention of the staff. That can also backfire. It's the preseason, so I'm not going to make a huge deal out of the collective kick returners who unilaterally decided to try to make plays from eight yards deep in the end zone, or the last return that unnecessarily ran 5 precious seconds off the clock leaving Sam Howell even less time to try to pull off a late game miracle.
But good decision making is good decision making. And in the end, I expect that Rivera would appreciate that more than trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat.
This player has had a lot of coaching buzz since last spring when he was brought in as a late round pick. And with Chase Young out for at least Week 1, there is room for younger players to show out in camp and potentially make the initial 53 and be a rotational piece off the edge. So, Toney rushing like his hair was on fire at the end of a one-point game was great. The penalty he took for knocking the helmet off Matt Corral was a killer. He's lucky no one cares what the final outcome of a preseason game is because just consider what that 15-yard penalty would mean in a regular season game. It could be the difference between a win or loss and this year feels like those moments will matter if this team does intend to play in mid-January.
The Washington Commanders were back on the field for Day 16 of training camp and began preparations for their second preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Check out the top photos from Monday's practice. (Emilee Fails/Washington Commanders)
*The safety competition *
From the get go, the two positions where young players could not only make the team but have prominent roles were tight end and safety. And then sometimes a veteran shows up and reminds you why he was in the league in the first place. Steven Parker brought the big stick to the game on Saturday, forcefully inserting himself into the discussion of who makes this team on the back end.
He and Darrick Forrest play with a vicious style, punishing players for entering their space. Parker's play against Carolina has, in my opinion, changed the dynamic of the position group as a whole as players like Percy Butler fight for rotational opportunity and players like Jeremy Reaves have a new formidable teammate eyeing a precious roster spot.
For me, there is no substitute for seeing live competition to start the process of making real evaluations and largely the Carolina game had a ton of positives. On the broad question of Wentz and his comfortability in this new offense, Saturday was a great sign. On the resilience of the team that's been on display under Rivera from Day 1, that remained intact. But third down defense across the board was once again an issue and the Panthers dominated the start of both halves. Slow starts and getting off the field dogged this team last year. Those are two specific situational spots that we'd all like to see show signs of change over the next two weeks.