ASHBURN, Va. — The Washington Commanders ended their 2022 season Sunday with an 8-8-1 record. Their collective mood the following day reflected that break-even mark.
Everyone feels better after a win, and the Commanders throttled the playoff-bound Dallas Cowboys 26-6 at FedExField in rookie quarterback Sam Howell’s NFL debut. However, there is no opportunity to build on that success after a dismal showing the week prior against the Cleveland Browns capped a four-game winless streak that ended their postseason dreams.
As Logan Thomas and his teammates cleaned out their lockers and said their goodbyes before heading into the offseason, they were left to sift through feelings of optimism and frustration.
“Yeah, a little bit of both,” the veteran tight end said. “Optimistic because I know what we got in this room. Frustrated because I know what we got in this room, and we should be in the dance. It sucks to have this day come as early as it has. But I think it’ll push us through the offseason and into next year.”
Where things went wrong for the Commanders this season
Curtis Samuel was among those trying to stay on the sunny side of the unwanted scenario. The wide receiver followed an injury-plagued 2022 season by playing all 17 games, displaying his playmaking ability and joyfully bonding with the fellas.
“I enjoyed this season,” Samuel said. “Frustrated that we didn’t make the playoffs, but at the same time, our guys in our room, man. It was a special year. … I feel like this year, they could see my personality and who I am a little bit. I feel like we had a great time. I’m going to miss them for sure.”
🎙️And with that, the Commanders’ 2022 season has come to an end. Thoughts on locker cleanout day, Sam Howell’s debut and future, Ron Rivera and Dan Snyder meeting, Scott Turner, Daron Payne and more with @SWhyno. https://t.co/iSU6odMbfo
— Ben Standig (@BenStandig) January 9, 2023
Left tackle Charles Leno Jr., the only Commander to play every offensive snap (1,190) this season, described the season as a “roller coaster. We had a lot of lows — but we had a lot of highs, too.”
What comes next for the franchise — a possible ownership sale, maybe some coaching changes and a definite quarterback search — is far above their pay grades. Others choose to spend their precious downtime focusing on almost anything else.
“I stay off social media, just focus on myself and my training, have fun being around the family or stuff like that,” cornerback Kendall Fuller said. “It’s out of my control, so whatever happens, happens. I’ll hear about it, I guess, whenever I hear about it.”
Before leaving the facility, amid shoving gear and personal effects into plastic bags and boxes, they ruminated on what went wrong during the streaky season. Numerous players landed on the same word: consistency.
“We won the first game of the season, but we kind of hit a (lull) a little bit after that,” Thomas said of Washington’s 1-4 start. “Then got back into it, got going and hit a lull at the end of the season. So just got to be consistent.”
Thomas and others have time to ponder how they can help the team find steadiness. No such opportunity for head coach Ron Rivera.
The man afforded the final say on personnel and staff decisions said evaluations on his coaches would extend into next week when he and owner Dan Snyder are expected to meet, according to multiple people informed of the team’s plans. Free agency and draft prep are underway for a team seeking its first winning season since Rivera arrived in 2020.
New arrivals mean some won’t return, a reality not lost on the men who battled with and for each other.
Safety Kamren Curl said the scene was “pretty emotional.”
“It’s not gonna be the same group of guys again,” he said. “That’s kind of messed up. For anybody who leaves, I hope for nothing but the best because I want to see everybody win.”
Rivera and general manager Martin Mayhew will offer their final thoughts on the season to local reporters Tuesday. The more pressing topics involve how the decision-makers anticipate improving the roster — and which of the players they want back.
Washington’s free-agent class includes starters and contributors like quarterback Taylor Heinicke, linebacker Cole Holcomb, Pro Bowl special teams performer Jeremy Reaves and interior offensive lineman Wes Schweitzer. Then there is the big ticket item: Daron Payne.
The 2018 first-round selection became extension eligible following the 2022 season. Unlike the previous offseason, when Washington agreed to a new deal with its other defensive tackle, Jonathan Allen, the team chose not to extend Payne. Then the powerful lineman showed he’s far more than a run-stuffer by shattering his career-high with a team-best 11.5 sacks.
‘Man on a mission’: Inside Daron Payne’s contract-year breakout (and a DT market set to explode)
With that kind of production alongside a DT market expected to surge, Payne showed no signs of stress.
“My agent, he gets paid good, one of the best in the business, and he’s going to do his job,” Payne said. “I got faith in him. I’m just going to relax and get to training.”
Payne mirrored Fuller by not fretting over the ownership situation — “It means nothing to me, honestly. I have no control over it,” he said. He wasn’t shy about wanting to fatten his wallet.
“You know what I want, man,” he told a reporter. “It’s self-explanatory.”
There’s some mystery with how high defensive tackle salaries will soar this year. League-wide expectations from team executives and agents who spoke with The Athletic anticipate a jump beyond $21 million annually. Only Rams star Aaron Donald lives in that tax bracket among defensive tackles.
The marketplace is cloudier for the other free agents.
“I hate the uncertainty, that part I hate,” wide receiver Cam Sims said, “but everything else is pretty much … all right, let me see.”
Holcomb, Washington’s leading tackler last season, spent his first four years in Ashburn.
“I love this organization. I love the guys in the locker room,” Holcomb said. “I’d love to get something done. But I also understand the business side of this league. So whatever happens, I’ll deal with what I got to deal with.”
The Commanders will likely clear significant cap space by releasing quarterback Carson Wentz. Washington lost five of seven games started by Rivera’s bold and polarizing acquisition. Wentz counts for $26.2 million toward the 2023 cap, but there is no guaranteed money for the remaining two years, so Washington can save all of it by releasing him.
Pain and gain
Defensive end Chase Young played the final three games after a 13-month layoff from a significant knee injury in November 2022. Several teammates are in various stages of their recovery period.
Running back Antonio Gibson had surgery on his fractured left foot last week. His entering the locker room with a walking boot and crutches wasn’t a shock, but a reminder of the pain players endure.
Gibson shared that he played through the injury for roughly six to eight weeks. The 1,000-yard rusher last season said he first noticed the injury in the Week 10 win at Philadelphia. He chose to keep playing since “it wasn’t enough pain to where I can’t go.” But Gibson also had a knee injury. When the rehab wasn’t enough, the plan switched to surgery after losing last week to the Browns.
Antonio Gibson here on crutches and a walking boot. Said he’s not sure when he injured his left foot but noticed it in the Week 10 Philly game. pic.twitter.com/O05uXBdh32
— Ben Standig (@BenStandig) January 9, 2023
The new plan calls for two weeks of no pressure on the foot and three months of recovery. “But that’s all up in the air, (depends) how my body reacts to it and how I go about rehab,” he said.
Holcomb began wheeling around the facility in a cart with his right foot elevated and along for the ride following surgery in December. He hopes to resume training in a couple of months. “At this point, it doesn’t really matter how long it takes in the offseason to get ready,” Holcomb said. “I know I’ll be back.”
Second-round pick Phidarian Mathis spoke about his lost rookie season for the first time after having knee surgery to repair a torn left meniscus suffered in his first game. Months later, the defensive tackle said he recently began jogging and participating in lateral drills.
“I ain’t going to lie, I been feeling good,” the upbeat Mathis said. “I’ve always been a great-spirited guy, so I never really been down about it. I’ve been working hard ever since it happened. … I’m probably 75-80 percent. We are headed in a great direction right now.”
Curl’s value and versatility became increasingly apparent as Washington’s defense regressed when the safety missed December games against San Francisco and Cleveland with an ankle injury., He anticipates taking off the following month before resuming his training.
Chatty running back J.D. McKissic appeared in the locker room but declined to speak with reporters. His season ended prematurely with a neck injury for the second consecutive year. Rivera said the passing-downs back would meet with a specialist before determining his future.
“That’ll be a decision that he’ll have to make if he gets the all-clear from the doctors and something we’ll sit down and talk with him and see where he is,” Rivera said last week.
As for Young, the 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year is excited for an offseason centered on getting “real strong.”
“I only had three games. I don’t have to rest my body like everybody else,” Young said. “I’m kind of starting now.”
(Photo of Taylor Heinicke: John McDonnell / The Washington Post via Getty Images)