Washington’s decision to trade not one, but both of their young edge rushers may have been interpreted by some as a signal the team was giving up on the 2023 season.
If you asked Commanders coach Ron Rivera, such a sentiment couldn’t be further from the truth.
“No, what I would say is, based on some of the things that we’ve seen and some of the growth and development we have, it’s an opportunity to see what else we have,” Rivera explained Wednesday when asked about the team trading Montez Sweat to Chicago and Chase Young to San Francisco. “It’s an opportunity to go out and win football games using different guys. And we feel that we have an opportunity to go out and play and play well. We look forward to seeing what some of these young guys can do.
“We do think that there’s every opportunity in front of us and I’ve gone through this before in 2014, I went through the same thing. We were late in the season, and we put a bunch of young guys that we felt had the opportunity or deserved the opportunity and put ’em out on the field and ended up in the playoffs. We won some games that gave us a chance.
“Do we have that opportunity? I think this is what this is. I think it’s the same kind of an opportunity. We do feel strongly about the quarterback. It’s something that I talked about in the off season, I’ve talked about through training camp. I’ve talked through the beginning of the season about the growth and development and, and we’re seeing it. And so we want to see what we have and see if we can win football games and put ourselves in that same position.”
Rivera isn’t off the mark concerning Sam Howell. The young quarterback has shown signs of potentially becoming a centerpiece in Washington, especially in his performances against the vaunted Philadelphia Eagles defense, whom Howell and the Commanders took to overtime in Week 4 and went toe to toe with in Week 8 before faltering down the stretch.
Howell hasn’t been perfect, and his 2023 season hasn’t been a continuous upward curve. But his good performances have been remarkable, and Washington believes if he can find some consistency, he could finally answer the club’s persistent question under center.
As for the trades involving Young and Sweat, Rivera admitted “it’s always difficult to say goodbye.” But he redirected the conversation toward an optimistic tone, framing it as a chance for Washington to get a look at what it has in place of Young and Sweat — Casey Toohill and James Smith-Williams are currently projected to replace the duo — whom Rivera thanked both directly (Sweat) and indirectly (Young, whose trade isn’t yet official with San Francisco on its bye week).
It might also signal a shift in how Washington wants to build its team in the future after spending premier draft capital on the defensive front over the course of a few years.
“Well, I think, again, when you look at some of the things that have happened for us this year in terms of growth and development and looking at what’s happening on at the quarterback position, you know, we feel really good about who Sam (Howell) is becoming for us,” Rivera said. “And again, looking at some of the things that are going on and with the compensation we’re getting for these players, it’s gonna give us an opportunity to continue to build for the future and do things a little differently.
“So yeah, there may be a little bit of a shift in terms of the paradigm and how we’re gonna construct things. Been a lot of things that we have talked about. It’s been an interesting 10 days probably as far as those things are concerned.”
These trades were clearly an example of a club attempting to maximize the return it would receive on two promising players whom the Commanders knew they likely couldn’t afford to keep. It’s far from the first instance in which a team parts with a player because of money, but it did include an interesting element: Washington made these moves just months into its time under new ownership, following Josh Harris’ purchase of the team from Dan Snyder.
“Well, for the most part, the process, probably started about 10 days ago. Our front office fielded a few calls about some of our players,” Rivera explained. “And when we talked about it, one of the things we talked about was gathering information and what potentials were for some of our guys. We talked about that, we talked about what the plan should be in terms of decisions being made. And then we did reach out to Mr. Harris.
“We had a nice conversation about that. We talked about our plans basically, we talked about what the potential could be and what the compensation could be. He liked the ideas, he agreed with the ideas, and so we were all aligned with everything from coaching to personnel to Mr. Harris. And with that, we went out and the front office they did the deals that they did yesterday.”
It’s likely that the compensation and the vision shared by team’s leadership group were enough to convince the new owner — whom Rivera described as “a deep thinker” who didn’t make a “knee-jerk reaction to anything” — to sign off on the deals. They were also trades Washington felt comfortable with executing because the club came to realize the pricey investment in the defensive line — four first-round picks, to be exact — wasn’t paying off enough to justify keeping it intact.
Rivera admitted as much, while also pointing to instability at quarterback as a persistent hindrance for a franchise that has struggled to compete in the NFC East in recent years.
“I think that’s a lot of the things that we’ve had to deal with, is that if you can get to that point and you have your guy sooner, then maybe things turn out differently, but we never got to that point,” Rivera said, lamenting Washington’s failure to fully capitalize on such a talented defensive group. “That was the hard thing. I know this franchise has been looking for quite some time and for the first time in a while, I think that that guy (Howell) might be here. I really do. I mean, I just got done looking at a bunch of stuff the analytics of football and they’re all pointing in the right direction as far as the quarterback is concerned.”
Still, such significant moves can send the wrong message to a team that still has a chance of competing for a playoff spot. Rivera attempted to smooth that over in talking with his players following the deal, once again framing it as an opportunity for those who will see increased playing time following the deal.
“The biggest message more than anything else was guys, it’s always difficult when you say goodbye to guys that help you and help grow and develop together, but it’s also part of the business,” Rivera said. “It’s the business side of it and that’s never easy. And for us, the biggest thing more than anything else is this is creating some opportunities for some other guys. It’s creating a different opportunity for us as a football team, and we’ve got to make the best of it.”
At times in recent years and in this season, Washington’s defense has been able to flip a game in its favor almost singlehandedly. Most teams won’t just replicate such production without a couple of those contributors on the roster. But because it wasn’t consistent enough to become an essential element, the Commanders felt comfortable enough to make such deals and position themselves better for the future, especially if Howell can continue to develop.
That’s enough variables to cause some sleepless nights. Washington will hope to prove its coach, general manager and ownership group right, starting with its trip to New England this weekend.
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