Here’s what Week 1 revealed about the Commanders’ offense

There are two ways of looking at the debut of the Washington Commanders’ new-look offense.

The charitable way: The West Coast scheme relies on timing and spacing, which take time to hone, and growing pains were expected. Quarterback Sam Howell flashed playmaking promise, especially on his two touchdowns, and coordinator Eric Bieniemy adapted to the game flow by prioritizing the run late. The six sacks didn’t expose an Achilles’ heel, because the responsibility for them was split among blocking, Howell’s occasionally lagging internal clock and, at least once, a combination of Howell and a longer-developing play call. All those issues are fixable, and as the offense coheres, Bieniemy will maximize everyone better and complement the strong defense. Give it time.

The uncharitable way: For all the talk of Bieniemy’s attention to detail, the offense was not crisp in a near-loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Neither touchdown drive was impressive — the first fueled by defensive penalties and the second on a short field — and the unit gave away the ball three times. Bieniemy called 14 runs in the last 17 plays because he didn’t trust the passing game. Given the ball at the Arizona 22-yard line with 4:38 to go and a one-point lead, Bieniemy didn’t even try to put the Cardinals away with a touchdown, pounding the rock three straight times and taking the field goal. Coach Ron Rivera bet too big on unproven pieces in Howell, Bieniemy and the offensive line. It will never work.

For now, the fairest assessment skews charitable. It’s one game with new faces in pivotal roles. Players and coaches know the 20-16 win was a bad first impression — “horrible,” in the words of running back Antonio Gibson, who fumbled in the red zone. Players insisted the offense can be better Sunday at the Denver Broncos, and after reviewing the film Monday, Rivera seemed confident in the same belief.

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“[It’s] never as bad as you think and never as good as you think,” Rivera said of Howell. “There were some really good things that happened; there were some really good rhythm stuff that was on. And then there was some things that were just kind of like, ‘Ooh, why’d you do that?’ ”

Despite the small sample size, the opener did provide two concrete conclusions: Howell is tough, and Howell is resilient.

Those takeaways might seem trite but are important. Even though his teammates called him tough and resilient all summer and even though a few moments from his previous games suggested they were right, there is now real proof from a real game with stakes.

The toughness showed early. On the second drive, Cardinals linebacker Kyzir White delivered a late hit to Howell’s helmet as he slid out of bounds. Howell bounced up, passed a concussion test and looked mostly poised as he kept the offense moving. He seemed to never let pressure from previous snaps affect current ones, which was a shift from some previous quarterbacks.

“With [Howell] being a smaller dude, we did want to test his toughness a little bit,” Cardinals defensive end Carlos Watkins said. “But I thought he held up decent. He didn’t seem scared or nothing. Just took the hits and kept moving.”

“He got a lot of heart,” White said, adding, “I tip my hat.”

The resilience showed late. The offense broke down in the second half as penalties and sacks led to difficult conversions of third and 25 and third and 20. Bieniemy shifted to a run-heavy approach, and Howell, patient, handed the ball off again and again. On third down from the 6-yard line, when Bieniemy was forced to call a pass play, Howell made a quick read, escaped the pocket and ran into the end zone. He had stayed ready for the big moment; the touchdown gave Washington the lead for good.

“You never saw him shaken; you never saw him with his head down,” wide receiver Terry McLaurin said. “He’s going to learn and grow, and that’s the thing about this: He’s our guy. We’re going to support him, but as a whole collective we could do a better job just staying on track and helping him out.”

What to know from Week 1 of the 2023 NFL season

Toughness and resilience will be key for Howell all year. His athleticism and arm strength embolden him to take chances, and as he tries to make plays, he inevitably will make mistakes such as the sack-fumble for a touchdown. And he will run a fair amount, so he will need to play through hits — as well as have the smarts to avoid the biggest ones. The development of the entire offense probably will rely heavily on Howell keeping up the intangibles he showed against Arizona.

Here’s why it’s difficult to read too much into the results of Sunday: Washington played basically the same game Week 1 in 2022. It seized an early lead against a poorly regarded opponent, nearly fumbled the game away in the middle and roared back late with an impressive play by a new quarterback and a game-sealing turnover by the defense.

Last year, the offense never again scored as many points as it did in Week 1. In the locker room Sunday, the primary emotion for offensive players wasn’t relief, as it was in 2022. It seemed to be frustration; they thought they were better than that. Left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said the similarities between the games stopped in the box score.

“This year just feels different,” he said. “For some reason, it just feels different. I don’t know how to explain it.”

It seems quite possible the explanation is, as Rivera once said, the quarterback.

Tramel Raggs contributed to this report.

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