Stock Report: Slow start for D, solid debuts for Howell, Robinson originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
The Commanders made their preseason debut at FedEx Field on Saturday and, while it took some time, there was eventual late-game excitement in a 23-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Washington opened with a three-and-out and immediately got down two touchdowns to a Panthers team without lofty expectations for the 2022 season. The Commanders starting defense looked a step slow on their first two drives of the game, even if they were put in a tough spot after an early Antonio Gibson fumble.
For an organization looking to go boldly into the future, Saturday's game was mostly fizzle, not flair. Until late the fourth quarter anyway. That's when rookie quarterback Sam Howell, a 2022 fifth-round draft pick, led two scoring drives to turn a 20-6 deficit into a 21-20 lead. The Panthers eventually hit a 45-yard field goal with 24 seconds to go to win it.
It's preseason. Things can, and hopefully will, look prettier in a month. In the end, the comeback was good to see even in a late loss.
- Brian Robinson - The third-round rookie running back got an opportunity and took major advantage. He got work with the first team after the Gibson fumble and looked strong as a runner and receiver. He carried the ball six times for 26 yards and scored the first-ever Commanders touchdown. Most importantly, he displayed patience on an outside zone run and looked capable as a pass blocker. It's probably a bit premature to install Robinson as the starting back, but it sure is trending that way.
- Sam Howell - The rookie QB from North Carolina started slow and finished strong. Coming on in the second half after Carson Wentz and Taylor Heinicke were done for the day, Howell completed 9 of 16 passes for 143 yards. He didn't throw for a TD -- but he ran for two. A 17-yard scramble up the middle with 8:18 to go brought the crowd out of its seats and showed what Howell does best early in his career: Improvise. Then after Washington got the ball back, Howell led the Commanders down the field again and capped the go-ahead drive with a one-yard plunge into the end zone.
- Safety depth - Washington has some real depth questions on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, but the safety group looks good. Starters Bobby McCain and Kam Curl are well established, but the youth behind them showed up well against the Panthers. Jeremy Reaves got a sack and Percy Butler and Darrick Forrest all logged tackles. All three are big hitters too.
- Curtis Samuel - He played. He made two grabs for 14 yards. In 2021, he grabbed only six catches for the season. Maybe the plan is working.
- Carson Wentz - He wasn't great but he was pretty good. Relatively sharp, finished 10 of 13 for 74 yards, and seemed in command of the Washington offense. If the main goal of preseason game one was shake the rust off and know the offense, Wentz passed with flying colors.
- Doc FREAKING Walker - A legend in this city and with this organization, Doc Walker took part in Saturday's television broadcast for NBC4 and NBC Sports Washington and his commentary was electric. At one point his name was trending on Twitter. Few people on the planet bring the level of passion, insight and care to Burgundy and Gold football than the good Doctor.
- Antonio Gibson - This one is obvious and kind of depressing, but one season after leading NFL running backs with six fumbles Gibson put a ball on the ground in the preseason opener. Robinson replaced Gibson on the next series, and when the third-year pro finally got back on the field, it was with the second-team offense. He finished the game with four carries for two yards and a catch for another two yards. If the fumbling issue persists, and it looks to be persisting, Rivera can't trust him on the field. This is approaching dangerous territory.
- Taylor Heinicke - The fan favorite is now in the right role in Washington - backup QB - but it didn't stop him from throwing a bad interception in the second quarter. It was an overthrow and an easy catch for the Panthers defender. He finished the game 4 of 9 for 21 yards with the pick, and ran twice for 14 yards.
- C'mon man - Joey Slye missed the extra point on the game's first touchdown. Can't be missing extra points, dude.
Fans Return to Fedex Field
At Saturday's tailgate, the aroma from the grill was just as inviting, the colors just as vibrant, and the fan base just as devoted, as seasons prior, even among the new.
Last season, Damon Gray was a Dallas fan. This year, it’s all about the Commanders.
“I’m back at my first game, excited,” he said.
And he’s got plenty to be excited about. The change in the team name coincides with his change of heart – quite literally.
“I recently had a heart transplant on July 6, 2021,” he said.
He made a vow that if he made it through, he’d pay it forward. So he started a charity called Helping the Heart to raise money for the American Heart Association. He reached out to the Commanders and they committed to donating game tickets for his fundraiser, which turned him into a fan.
“I made that commitment to the Washington Commanders, I will support them, from here on, like I said, as long as I live,” he said.
For Joe Crandall, it’s about the memories: his very first sporting event was a Washington home game in 1991.
“With my dad, RFK, the stadium rocking. I think we won like 45 to nothing. It was just unbelievable, I mean a memory I’ll never forget,” he said.
And he was one of more than a few rocking the old Washington Football Team gear.
“We’ll be reppin’ this forever, we’ll get the new stuff but we’ll still rep this,” he said.
Eleven-year-old Kensie Bear said she’s a lifelong fan, and tickets to the game were her birthday surprise.
“My mom won’t tell me where we’re sitting, so I'm really excited to know where we’re sitting,” she said with a smile.
And you can tell by the way one couple was dressed - in a wedding dress and tux - that they were celebrating something, too, and staying spontaneous.
“[We’re] Mr. and Mrs. Lyons, just married last Saturday this time,” Mr. Lyons said. “She woke up this morning and said, ‘Let’s dress up and I said…OK.’”