Analysis | Amid off-field issues, Commanders face tall task of turning focus to football


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The sunshine was bright and brilliant. The crowd was sparse. Carson Wentz’s appearance was relatively brief. And in their first preseason game with their new team name, the Washington Commanders tried to take a step toward reinvigorating their fan base and putting more of the focus on the football being played on the field rather than on the issues swirling ceaselessly off it.

That task falls somewhere between considerable and daunting. If any progress was made Saturday, it was incremental, as the Commanders lost to the Carolina Panthers, 23-21, before an announced crowd of 44,855 at FedEx Field.

Wentz played decently, completing 10 of 13 passes for 74 yards in his preseason debut for his third NFL team. There were no firm conclusions to be drawn from this low-stakes outing about his ability to give the franchise lasting stability at quarterback.

“I thought he threw the ball well,” Commanders Coach Ron Rivera said. “I thought he threw it where he was supposed to. … He did the things that we hoped he would do.”

But there were no exhilarating moments either, even by preseason standards. There was little to excite the crowd, such as it was. The most enthusiastic and consistent cheers, in fact, came as rookie quarterback Sam Howell engineered a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives.

“I thought that what our guys did coming back, giving ourselves a chance, there was a lot of excitement,” Rivera said. “And that’s what we want to do. We want to create some excitement. We want to play hard. We’ve got to play smart. We’ve got to play better.”

The number of people actually in the stands appeared far more modest than the official attendance figure. The stadium the Commanders are attempting so desperately to leave for an upgraded version — somewhere — when their lease expires in 2027 was strikingly empty on an August afternoon that was as pleasant as they come.

Preseason football is far from captivating. But on such an idyllic day, with a new team name and a new quarterback unveiled, a better turnout might have been expected if the fan base had not been so disaffected by the franchise’s off-field turmoil. Tickets reportedly were available on the secondary market for as little as $1, according to the Athletic.

It speaks to the enormity of the fan dissatisfaction, ranging from anger to apathy, that Rivera and a front office led by team president Jason Wright must try to overcome.

The Commanders and their owner, Daniel Snyder, remain under investigation by the NFL, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and the attorneys general of D.C. and Virginia.

Snyder spent more than 10 hours late last month testifying voluntarily under oath to the committee remotely after his attorney refused to accept service electronically of a subpoena. Snyder faces potential disciplinary measures by the NFL, depending on the findings of the league’s ongoing investigation being conducted by attorney Mary Jo White. It has been 13 months since Snyder turned over control of the franchise’s daily operations to his wife, Tanya Snyder, the team’s co-CEO, after a previous NFL investigation by attorney Beth Wilkinson.

The team’s efforts to secure public funding for a new stadium in Virginia have been put on hold. As if there wasn’t enough unrest, Wright criticized a local television reporter Friday on Twitter for his line of questioning in an interview with Wentz. The questions put to the quarterback were not particularly inflammatory or out of line for a player who has been traded twice, most recently after only one season with the Indianapolis Colts.

Wright wasn’t backing down Saturday, telling reporters before the game he thought his Twitter comments were appropriate. He also said he believes the Commanders will be able to stick to their timeline for playing in a new stadium. He portrayed a team in promising financial health.

Snyder, Wright and the team consistently have tried to paint the picture of a revamped franchise taking proactive steps to move away from its past issues. That was not convincing to the House Oversight Committee, which concluded in its investigation that Snyder and members of his legal team conducted a “shadow investigation” to discredit his accusers and shift blame.

In the quest to win back fans, playing better football would help. Rivera is a more-than-capable coach who won an NFC East title in his first season with the team. Even so, he’s seeking the first winning season of his Washington tenure as he begins Year 3. So much depends on Wentz, who put up solid numbers for most of last season in Indianapolis before he and the team unraveled late, missing the playoffs and prompting Wentz’s abrupt, not-by-choice exit.

If Wentz plays reasonably well, no one will remember critics’ contentions that the Commanders surrendered too much to trade for him. There are enough other pieces in place for this team to return to a contender in a division that remains without an elite team. But would, say, a 9-8 record be enough to make the fans care again? It is the job ahead of Rivera, Wentz and the Commanders to make that a relevant question.

“I thought the energy and the atmosphere was cool,” Wentz said. “Obviously it’ll keep getting more revved up as we get closer to Week 1. But it was good to get out here, to not be booed, and to have some fun in front of these fans.”





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