The Washington Commanders finished up their 2023 season last week, which means that now is the time to reflect and look towards the future. Here are five takeaways from the season, presented by Maryland Lottery.
1. We learned more about the quarterback position.
The biggest question for the Commanders heading into the 2023 season was whether Sam Howell, a fifth-round pick that showed promise in his first start against the Dallas Cowboys, could become the quarterback of the future.
After seeing Howell go through the entire season, a first for Washington since Kirk Cousins in 2017, and have one of the best statistical single seasons in franchise history, the best answer you can get is that the results were mixed.
There was certainly some good, especially in the first half of the season. Howell showed a willingness to trust his receivers to make explosive plays and made some clutch throws that many of the better quarterbacks playing today make in today's NFL. Plays like his game-tying touchdown pass to Jahan Dotson in Week 4 against the Philadelphia Eagles and several throws he made in the comeback win over the Denver Broncos helped him amass 30 big-time throws, according to Pro Football Focus, which was eighth best among quarterbacks.
However, the quality of opposing defenses increased as the Commanders entered the final stretch of the season, and Howell's performance experienced a gradual regression, so much so that he was pulled twice in favor of Jacoby Brissett. Howell looked skittish in the pocket at times, forced throws into tight windows with low odds of success and led the league in interceptions. He also had 31 turnover-worthy plays, per PFF -- the most in the NFL.
There are some factors that contributed to Howell's problems. Even though the amount of pressure Washington dealt with wasn't all on the offensive line, they aren't blameless, either. He led quarterbacks with 65 sacks taken and batted down passes. Howell also had little help from his running game, mostly because the Commanders rarely utilized it. Washington had the lowest run percentage in the league last year, which led to Washington leading the league in pass attempts.
So, what's the deal with Howell? There's certainly talent there, and maybe they could build around that in the future. But the No. 2 overall pick changes things. If the Commanders feel like they can win with Caleb Williams or Drake Maye, the two quarterbacks believed to be the best in the class, then they must seriously consider taking one of them.
2. The defense needs some work.
There was a time when it was believed that Washington's defense would be one of the best in the NFL and had the ability to carry the team as Howell and the offense got up to speed.
To sum things up, that was completely wrong.
Explosive plays were the biggest problem for the Commanders in 2023, much as they have been for the past four years. They allowed more of them than any other team in the league to the point where it was almost expected for them to give up a long touchdown due to miscommunication in the secondary.
In that regard, the Commanders did not disappoint. D.J. Moore putting up a career-high 230 yards and three touchdowns was one of the worst examples, but moments like Cooper Kupp getting about 17 yards of separation on a 62-yard score and the New York Jets, which hadn't scored a first-quarter touchdown all year prior to playing the Commanders, going up 17-0 became too common.
The result was the undoing of the Commanders' defensive identity. They traded Chase Young and Montez Sweat at the deadline for second- and third-round picks, and after the Cowboys blew them out on Thanksgiving, they relieved Jack Del Rio of his duties as the defensive coordinator. To be fair, the defense did improve in some areas after that decision was made, but playing teams like the Dolphins and 49ers at the end of the season made it hard to regain any traction.
The Commanders used to pride themselves on having a strong defense that could get after quarterbacks. In the end, neither of those things were true; they were 26th in sacks last season, a frustrating stat even considering Young and Sweat are no longer on the roster.
There are some pieces to build around, but Washington will likely need to invest more resources to rebuild the defense, regardless of who is the head coach.
3. Terry McLaurin continues to be a franchise great, despite limited production.
There were moments where the Washington offense looked like it was starting to come together, particularly around the middle of the season when Howell was at his best, but most of the season it dabbled in frustration. Despite passing the ball more than any team in the league, they were in the middle of the pack in yards through the air and in the bottom half of yards per game.
Despite that, Terry McLaurin added more reasons as to why he's one of the best receivers in franchise history.
McLaurin, who has now wrapped up his fifth season, wasn't unaffected by the Commanders' struggles on offense. He had 132 targets -- two shy of a career high -- but the production, and shots downfield, simply weren't there like they were in years past. It even looked like McLaurin would miss out on 1,000 yards with four games left in the season.
But then he had 141 yards against the Los Angeles Rams after getting zero catches on three targets against the Miami Dolphins. That put him within striking distance of his goal, and though it took almost the entirety of the Commanders' final game against the Dallas Cowboys to pull it off, his 15-yard reception on the second-to-last play of the game made him the first receiver in franchise history to have four consecutive 1,000-yard season.
"There's a lot of great receivers that I've had the chance to study and meet since I've been here, whether it's Ary Monk or Gary Clark, just the whole Posse and [Santana Moss], who's right around the corner," McLaurin said. "There's numerous guys who have walked these halls and played on the field out there and had really great seasons. So...to be the first at anything part of this organization, that would be very humbling."
McLaurin is now firmly among the top 10 receivers in Washington's 91-year history. He's eighth in yards (5,283), ninth in receptions (378), third in targets (609), 10th in receiving touchdowns (25) and fifth in yards per game (66). And considering how young McLaurin is, he can climb up those rankings even higher in years to come.
4. An evaluation of the rookie class.
Washington's rookie class needed time to put together more consistent results. It wasn't until roster spots freed up, plus the team being eliminated from the playoffs, that some of them got significant playing time. They still have a lot of work to do, but multiple showed growth in the final three games and provided examples as to why they should be part of the team's future.
Things were rough for **Emmanuel Forbes Jr.** to start the year. We don't need to go over all the details again, but a lack of ability to stand up against some of the league's top receivers, which allowed several explosive plays that gashed the defense and led to him being benched in Week 6. Things were much better for Forbes after that, allowing a combined 235 yards in his final nine appearances. He did allow two touchdowns against the 49ers and Cowboys, but both were caused by scramble drills and receivers running unscripted route through chaos in the end zone to score.
KJ Henry had a quiet training camp, leaving many to believe that he needed more time to turn into a serviceable backup, never mind a decent starter. After being inactive from Weeks 2-8, Henry showed more of what coaches hoped he would be with 19 tackles, 1.5 sacks and two quarterback hits.
Perhaps the most productive player among the Commanders' rookies was Chris Rodriguez Jr. Though he only received 51 carries all season, Rodriguez made the most of his opportunities and rushed for 247 yards -- almost five yards per carry -- and scored two touchdowns. With Antonio Gibson set to hit free agency, there is a chance for him to get even more carries in his second season.
There's also Quan Martin, whose usage increased once Del Rio was let go. Martin was praised for his versatility in college, and the team finally found a way to get the most out of that after Thanksgiving. He ended the season tying Kendall Fuller for the most interceptions on the team and recording 46 tackles with four pass breakups.
Even with the production later in the season, it's clear that most of the Commanders' 2023 draft class needs more time to develop. However, the fact that they improved with more snaps over time does create some encouragement for their future.
5. Time to look at the future.
Managing Partner Josh Harris said it best when he addressed the media after Washington's 4-13 season: "Clearly, we weren't good enough this year. We didn't get it done on the field. And so, we've decided to go into a new direction."
The Commanders have already begun taking the steps towards finding their new head coach and head of football operations to lead the franchise into a new era. Harris promised a "thorough, but rapid process" for filling those roles, and official word on those searches could come in the near future. Whoever the Commanders decide on will have draft picks, cap space and plenty of support to rebuild the roster how they see fit.
"From my point of view, we are coming out of this poised for a great future," Harris said. "A lot of draft capital, a lot of cap space, and I'm lucky enough to be supported by an amazing ownership group, and obviously we think we're an attractive destination for the next generation of leadership."
Although the 2023 season was a difficult one, both for the fans and organization, the next few months are shaping up to be an exciting time for the Commanders.