Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera finally sees meaning in preseason games.
Saturday's opener against the Carolina Panthers will have starters playing into the second quarter. It's a stark departure from last preseason when first-teamers played very little over the new three-game August format.
That's because Washington can't start slowly come September, not versus the NFL's worst two teams in Jacksonville and Detroit as the Commanders' opening opponents. Washington needs a 2-0 start and a lot of momentum before playing NFC East rivals Philadelphia and Dallas respectively. Anything less than 3-1 compromises playoff hopes.
Quarterback Carson Wentz will play 15 to 20 snaps into the second quarter before giving way to Taylor Heinicke with Sam Howell playing late. Forget injury worries. Ryan Fitzpatrick barely played in the 2021 preseason and was injured in the opener's second quarter. So, no bubbles allowed in Rivera's third year after a pair of seven-win seasons.
Rivera needs to see what he has, especially on offense, so the team is preparing for Carolina rather than just running a vanilla offense. There's nothing wrong with flashing plays because everyone knows what opponents run anyway barring trick plays. It's not science. You run the ball, you pass the ball. There's little new each year.
Coaches like to act as generals seeking world domination, but it's really overthinking. The real keys are executing plays, avoiding mistakes and learning what new players can do. That's why Rivera is extending his starters, so come the Sept. 11 opener versus Jacksonville there is little guessing.
Winning the game isn't that important. Oh, that's not degrading the Baltimore Ravens winning 20 straight games through last season. No game is meaningless. Legendary coach Vince Lombardi said, “Winning is not a sometime thing; it's an all the time thing.” The preseason is supposed to set the tone for the regular season so teams are ready on day one to win.
Washington has two major keys to making the playoffs aside staying healthy. Wentz and the defensive line must play well or the team invested poorly.
Wentz gets his first outing since Washington obtained him in March. The big-arm passer gives the Commanders a deep game, but it's time for erratic practice throws to sharpen against opponents. It's time to see if Wentz can show some firepower throwing to three receivers – Terry McLaurin, first-rounder Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel – while the top tight ends the passer so loves are injured. Can Wentz throw more quick passes behind a revamped line?
The running game also needs to see if rookie Brian Robinson can emerge past Antonio Gibson. Washington will be a pass-first offense, but Robinson could be a game-changer between tackles.
Defensively, Chase Young is still a couple months away from playing, but opposite end Montez Sweat's good training camp foretells a rebound after a troubled 2021. Daron Payne needs a big year inside as the line with four first-rounders needs to prove itself.
Perhaps the only true position battle is punt returner between Alex Erickson and Dax Milne. Otherwise, the preseason is mostly over reserves and chemistry.
At least Rivera is giving the preseason some respect and fans something to watch. It may be the reason September won't be the cruelest month once more.