The Washington Commanders are heading into the bye week before the final four games of the 2023 season. Here are five observations from their first 13 games.
1. Sam Howell has a promising future.
Sam Howell’s future is unknown at this point, and with just 14 starts in two seasons, the former fifth-round pick is far from a finished product. There's been more good than bad from him in his first season as a starter, though, and he's making a solid case that he deserves to stay under center for years to come in Washington.
As the Commanders head into the final stretch of the season, one of Howell's best traits has been his stability. From 2018-22, Washington started at least three quarterbacks in each season. The list included veterans like Alex Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick as well as unproven players like Taylor Heinicke and Dwayne Haskins. In that time, no Washington quarterback threw for more than 3,500 yards.
Although he has been sacked 58 times this season -- more than any other quarterback by a wide margin and partly because of his own development -- Howell has been consistently available, which has been a rare occurrence for Washington's quarterbacks. Assuming Howell stays healthy for the entire season, he'll be the first Commanders signal-caller to do so since Kirk Cousins in 2017.
Howell does have some rough patches to his skill set. He takes too many sacks, and his anticipation on throws needs to improve. However, he also has impressive arm strength and pairs it with a knack for placing passes in areas where only his receiver can make a play. He's currently second in the league in passing yards with a completion rate of 65.8%.
Howell will need to prove himself against defenses like the San Francisco 49eres, New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys to end the season on a good note, but he's already shown enough to indicate that he could have a long career.
2. Explosive plays have dictated the season.
The Commanders are 4-9 with a dwindling possibility of making the postseason. The reasons for why the Commanders haven't lived up to expectations are complex, but most of them revolve around an inability to contain explosive plays.
Getting gashed by opposing offenses, whether it's through the air or on the ground, has become commonplace for the Commanders' defense. Most recently, the Commanders got burned by Tyreek Hill on two touchdowns of 78 and 60 yards. Up to this point in the season, the Commanders have allowed the most passing touchdowns outside of the red zone.
But the most crushing part of those explosive games is that they have taken Washington out of games that it would have otherwise been competitive in. Take both matchups against the Philadelphia Eagles; A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith had explosive touchdowns in both matchups, and with both games being decided by a combined 10 points, those lapses in coverage were brutal.
Another example is the Bears game on Thursday Night Football. DJ Moore caught eight of 10 targets for 230 yards, and almost all of those catches resulted in explosive plays.
The Commanders are 4-9 for a reason, but what makes it more unfortunate is that had they been able to limit those explosive plays, things could have been drastically different.
3. Brian Robinson Jr. continues to stand out.
Brian Robinson Jr. showed promise during his rookie season, but with him missing the first four games recovering from multiple gunshot wounds, he felt like there was more that he could offer.
We're starting to see what Robinson meant by that.
Robinson has been the team's best offensive weapon in 2023. He's at 990 scrimmage yards, which is nearly 300 yards more than the next Washington player. The bulk of that comes from his improvements as a runner. He's been more patient with his blocking lanes, and he's combined that with a physical running style that often results in Robinson bowling through defenders.
Robinson's biggest growth has come as a pass-catcher. Robinson stressed that he could be more than just a power back in training camp, and he's backed that up by catching 80.6% of his targets for 326 yards and three touchdowns. Perhaps his best play came against the Atlanta Falcons, when he caught a screen pass and ran over a defender on his way to a 24-yard touchdown.
Like the rest of the team, Robinson still has plenty to prove, but he's shown that he can be a dynamic threat the Commanders can lean on going forward.
4. No. 1 receivers have big days against the defense.
Hill had a big day against the Commanders, catching five of seven targets for 157 yards and two scores. He's not the first No. 1 receiver to give the defense fits.
Through 13 games, the Commanders have allowed a receiver to record at least 100 receiving yards seven times. The list includes some of the NFL's elite like Stefon Diggs (111 yards), Brown (175 and 130 yards) and More (230 yards).
Even more disappointing is how open some of these receivers have been in their matchups with the Commanders. Hill had enough space to adjust his route and still get a 60-yard score; Brown had no one around him as he got a fourth-quarter touchdown in Week 4; and Moore faced almost no opposition on a 56-yard touchdown.
Washington still has some top-tier wideouts on the schedule in the final four games. The 49ers have Deebo Samuel; the Jets have Garrett Wilson; and CeeDee Lamb will be at FedExField for a rematch at FedExField for the season finale.
To put it simple, if Washington wants to end the season on a positive note, it has to figure out its problem with containing opponents' best players.
Check out the top photos of the Washington Commanders during their Week 13 game against the Miami Dolphins. (Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders)
5. Rookies are starting to improve.
The Commanders' rookie class has needed some time to develop, but it seems like the group is starting to get more acclimated to being in the NFL.
First-round pick Emmanuel Forbes Jr. has missed the past two games with an elbow injury. The results have been mixed, although it looked like he was starting to get more consistent before his injury against the Giants. The team is still confident in him and expects him to be back on the field as early as Week 15.
Other players from the seven-player class have started to produce with more opportunities. Quan Martin, for example, posted a career-high seven tackles against the Dolphins, including five solo stops. KJ Henry and Andre Jones Jr. both had to step up after the trades of Montez Sweat and Chase Young, and since the trade deadline, they have combined for 10 tackles. Henry also got his first sack in Week 11 against the Giants.
But Chris Rodriguez Jr. has been the Commanders' most productive rookie so far this season. He only has 154 yards, but he's averaging five yards per attempt and has a success rate of 51.6% on his runs.
All of the Commanders' rookies should get more snaps in the last four games of the season. It'll serve as an opportunity to show how they contribute to the franchise's future.