ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Commanders rejoiced over hiring offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. They wanted his energy, his championship experience and his penchant for holding players accountable. When they hired him, they answered one big question about their offense.
“It’s a really big step for our team,” receiver Terry McLaurin said.
But for Bieniemy and Washington to maximize this opportunity, the Commanders have more questions to answer to avoid a seventh consecutive year finishing in the bottom half in yards and points per game.
“There is talent there,” Bieniemy said.
To get the most out of it, these three questions will be foremost on their minds:
Sam Howell? Really?
Yes. Washington really does like the 2022 fifth-round pick out of North Carolina. The Commanders liked him enough before that draft that one source said he would have been the quarterback they targeted early in the draft had they not traded for Carson Wentz.
Washington also will sign a veteran quarterback to compete with Howell. Taylor Heinicke, a pending free agent, remains a strong option, one source said. But coach Ron Rivera said last month he does not want to surrender a lot of capital -- be it draft picks or money -- for a quarterback. So it would be someone who could start or handle a backup role if Howell indeed wins the job.
Rivera has been clear: Howell enters offseason workouts as “QB1” but still must earn the job.
They like Howell’s strong arm, quick release and skills. He’s not a tall quarterback at 6-foot-1 but has a solid frame at 220 pounds that can help him absorb contact. Washington believes he can play well in a system that calls for quick throws, such as the West Coast attack Bieniemy will install.
Howell played one game last season, starting the season finale when he completed 11 of 19 passes for 169 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He also ran for a score in a 26-6 win over the Dallas Cowboys.
“The kid is a dynamic player,” Bieniemy said. “He can make throws from different platforms. The thing that got me fired up is when he ran in on that touchdown he flexed. That was some good stuff.”
Players spoke highly of Howell before his first start -- publicly and privately -- and remain hopeful he can be The Guy for a franchise that has started seven other quarterbacks in Rivera’s first three seasons.
“I’m confident in Sam,” McLaurin said. “What Sam showed in his first start was a great first step. The way he handled himself from a demeanor standpoint, the way he prepared through the entire week against a really good defense and the way he handled himself even when he had adversity in the game was outstanding for a guy having his first start.”
Will they fix the offensive line?
They have no choice. Not every issue in protection stemmed from the offensive line -- sometimes the tight end blocking was subpar; other times the quarterback held the ball too long – but a lot of them did. Washington could end up with at least three new starters along the line.
The Commanders must first decide how they view Sam Cosmi, their second-round pick in 2021. He has started 14 games at right tackle, but also started one game at right guard. The team views him as being able to play either position; Cosmi said at season’s end he wanted to stay in one spot.
Some of that will depend on what happens this offseason: If the Commanders add a tackle, Cosmi could move to guard; if they add guards he could stay at tackle. Rivera said that versatility provides them flexibility with who they pursue.
Trai Turner, who started 12 games at right guard, is a free agent. Andrew Norwell, who started 16 games at left guard, has one year remaining on his contract but Washington could save $2.28 million on the salary cap if it released him.
The Commanders want more athleticism inside. If Bieniemy incorporates the Kansas City Chiefs' screen game, it will need players who can execute in space.
Washington also must decide on a center. Chase Roullier has played only 10 games combined the past two seasons because of injuries. He fractured his left fibula in 2021 and needed plates put in the bone and his ligaments to be reattached. Last year, he tore the MCL in his right knee.
If he returns, he’d count $12.42 million against the cap. Tyler Larsen, his primary backup the past two years, is a pending free agent. The draft is considered a good one for centers.
“Obviously, there's a need to continue to add young people to that group,” general manager Martin Mayhew said of the line in January.
Can they better use their skill talent?
This question can be helped if the first two queries are strongly answered. Washington has good receivers with McLaurin, Curtis Samuel and Jahan Dotson. They were a productive group last season with 176 combined catches, 2,370 yards and 16 touchdowns.
But they can do more, with help around them -- whether by playcalls or quarterback or better protection. McLaurin, for example, ranked sixth in yards per catch (Dotson was ninth) but 22nd in number of targets -- and he was 30th in first-half targets, a source of frustration for multiple offensive players, according to team sources. McLaurin finished with 1,190 yards.
“We’ve got to be able to score and how do you do that? You get the ball in playmaker’s hands,” Rivera said.
In Kansas City, Bieniemy was part of an offense that featured a lot of quick throws. While Washington’s receivers all have the speed to threaten deep, they’re also adept on slants and shorter throws that can lead to longer gains.
The Chiefs ranked fifth in most pass attempts of 10 air yards or shorter and third in yards after the catch. Meanwhile, Washington, with a weaker pass protection group that perhaps should have called for quicker throws, ranked 19th in both categories. Overall, the Commanders ranked ninth in air yards per throw; Kansas City ranked 23rd.
It’s not just the receivers, Washington also has a solid running game with Brian Robinson Jr. and Antonio Gibson. The Commanders need their young pass-catching tight ends -- notably Cole Turner, Armani Rogers and Curtis Hodges -- to develop and for veteran Logan Thomas to return to his form before suffering a torn left ACL in December 2021. Rivera said by season’s end Thomas had regained that form as a pass-catcher.
Rivera said in watching the Chiefs during the postseason, knowing Bieniemy was a candidate, “I kept thinking to myself, ‘wow we’ve got guys who can do that. Terry can do that; Jahan can do that. We’ve got running backs who can do those things. … A lot of things I kept saying, ‘We can do those things.’”