The Commanders are as always: a team just a few games away

SEATTLE — When the Washington Commanders began this season with two decisive victories, it felt like they were working some kind of close-game magic. Whether it was luck, courage or the shock of the new ownership, they seemed to be a team that gained valuable experience and won victories, no matter how suspicious they seemed.

Ten weeks into the season, it’s clear that these games were as much about the Arizona Cardinals and Denver Broncos’ deficits as they were about the Commanders’ improvement. On Sunday, Washington fell to a 4-6 record with a last-second 29-26 loss to the Seattle Seahawks at Lumen Field. Once again, they played just well enough to make it clear that they weren’t good enough.

The commanders struggled against their defensive errors and offensive imbalance. Promising young quarterback Sam Howell led a comeback, tying the game with a touchdown pass to Dyami Brown with 52 seconds left. Still, they lost. Their last four games have been decided by a touchdown or less. They have lost three of them, with their only win coming last week against the offensively inept New England Patriots.

Since winning its first two games by a total of six points, Washington is 1-4 in its last five games decided by seven points or less. In his fourth season, Coach Ron Rivera did what most functioning NFL franchises have figured out: He raised the Commanders’ ceiling. However, her ceiling is still not high enough for her to stand up.

The Commanders’ rallies are completely for naught in a painful loss to the Seahawks

The epitaph for this season – and for the last four years – essentially goes like this: Hey, we graduated from Train Wreck Football. But that has resulted in Washington being just a mediocre, standard team.

The Commanders entered Sunday one game out of a wild-card playoff spot, and against a Seahawks team with a struggling quarterback and a defense that couldn’t stop the run of the last three weeks, they had a great chance to advance the street and even its record. But hanging around in an argument is not the same as arguing. The NFC may offer opportunities for Washington to mathematically stay in the playoffs, but this team isn’t worth it. And if that continues, Rivera and the football operation he runs will not be worthy of leading the team for new owner Josh Harris.

The Commanders started well Sunday, scoring a 51-yard touchdown pass from Howell to Brian Robinson Jr. on their first drive, setting off a day in which Washington’s offense thrived on short passes to running backs. Robinson had six receptions for 119 yards. Antonio Gibson finished the game with five catches for 42 yards and a touchdown. For the game, Howell completed 29 of 44 passes for 312 yards and three touchdowns. He was really good.

But the offense is still a mess. Coordinator Eric Bieniemy has his young quarterback playing better than expected, but the Commanders can’t control time of possession with their pass-heavy ambitions. They finished the game with just 14 rushes, 12 of which were by running backs. They only rushed for 68 yards, only 51 of which came from running backs. Imbalance can be tolerated, but this performance showed more of a stubborn indifference to running the ball against an opponent whose run defense had fallen apart.

The Seahawks’ defense had allowed 193.3 rushing yards per game – at a clip of 5.5 yards per carry – and five rushing touchdowns in the three previous games, including Baltimore’s 298-yard rushing performance last week. But Howell dropped back and passed 17 of the first 21 plays of the game.

That’s fine if the offense is successful and the defense can hold up under the stress on the field. But Washington gave up 489 yards to Seattle. Quarterback Geno Smith played his best game in several weeks, throwing for 369 yards and two touchdowns without a turnover. The Seahawks also rushed for over 120 yards.

“I think there were a few things that were inconsistent in terms of being able to stop the run and put ourselves in better situations,” Rivera said of the defense.

Four takeaways from the Commanders’ loss to the Seahawks

After Howell tied the game with 52 seconds left, Seattle gained 50 yards in seven plays. Smith did most of the damage with two passes to DK Metcalf for a total of 44 yards, putting Seattle within striking distance of a 43-yard field goal for Jason Myers to win the ball as time expired.

The lack of wreck football doesn’t mean the Commanders aren’t frustrating. They’re not a weekly embarrassment, they’re not dysfunctional, and there’s little reason to question their most basic priorities anymore. But all that adds up is that the team continues to win about seven games, which is about three shy of consistent success. The Commanders are a 7-10 program. That was about what they accomplished under Jay Gruden, Rivera’s predecessor, before a collapse that resulted in a 3-13 finish in Gruden’s final season. For much of the past eight seasons, Washington has been stuck in the same place. The texture of mediocrity changes depending on who’s running the team, but the results are disappointingly similar.

These Commanders are good enough to rally on the road, with Howell leading a 73-yard drive in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 19. Then the defense didn’t respond and helped Seattle regain the lead with a penalty attempt. But Howell came right back and found Dyami Brown, who brought about the dramatic finish.

Despite all of their experience in close games and all of a season’s worth of missions that eluded them, the defense couldn’t even force overtime. The big game continues to catch them. Several players on that unit struggled, but cornerback Benjamin St-Juste had a particularly difficult time defending Metcalf in the fourth quarter.

“I can give you the politically correct answer, this and that and whatever,” St-Juste said. “To be honest, I’ll take it. I feel like I cost my team this win.”

At 4-6 and with a difficult schedule remaining, the Commanders appear to have no path to 9-8. They look 7-10 as usual. At the end of the season, they will assume they were close enough – a few games here or there – to have a successful season. But good teams find a way, and the mediocre teams are left to complain about missed opportunities.

This kind of regret has become all too familiar to Rivera’s team. The Commanders are as always: a team just a few games away

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