Sports

Perspective | The Commanders have their reality check. What’s important is their response.

By the time Josh Allen pranced and danced his way into the end zone — completely untouched, by the way — some fans in burgundy and gold had already headed for the parking lots, a reality check had been served, and it hadn’t even gotten truly embarrassing for the Washington Commanders. Allen’s fake finger-roll as he crossed the goal line indicated exactly what a layup Sunday was for the Buffalo Bills, a 37-3 demolition that reestablished them as a force and, frankly, put the Commanders back in their place.

Every week in the NFL tends to be a referendum, and it’s likely these teams could play 10 more times and Washington wouldn’t get humiliated in the same fashion. But they only played once, and that was Sunday, and it was an absolute humiliation. That matters, particularly because Commanders players and coaches billed this game as a measuring stick. The takeaway: When standing next to a fully grown male buffalo, how high does a hamster measure?

“It just forces everybody to look in the mirror and make sure this doesn’t happen again,” star receiver Terry McLaurin said. “They came in here and they whooped us.”

He added: “You never want to come out and put on that kind of showing. That’s not the team that we are. But if we want to make sure that’s not who we are, we have to come back better next week.”

The Commanders have reasons for optimism. But some areas still need work.

There’s the key point, which will require proof, beginning next week at Philadelphia. In the season’s first two weeks, the Commanders came back to beat Arizona and Denver. They got clobbered at home by an opponent that is quite open about its Super Bowl aspirations. The team that they are? That would be a giant TBD.

Whatever the ultimate verdict, the version from Sunday is best kept locked in a safe that’s pushed overboard into the Potomac. Numbers, of course, never tell the whole story. But that doesn’t mean they don’t tell an important story.

Washington quarterback Sam Howell was sacked nine times and threw four picks, looking overmatched for the first time in his career, which is all of four games old. Before a garbage-time drive that led to their only points, the Commanders had gained all of 188 yards. They coughed up 386. They converted exactly one of their nine third downs and allowed Buffalo conversions on nine of 15. They could neither stay on the field on offense nor get off it on defense.

“We’re all culpable,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “That’s what I told the guys in there: We’re all culpable.”

Spread the culpability around, then, and get a rare result. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, here’s the list of Washington losses worse than this one: 52-7 at New England in 2007, 56-14 at Dallas in 2021 and 45-10 against Kansas City in 2013.

“You’re going to have tough days at the office,” McLaurin said. “Some uglier than others.”

We may not know who this team is in its totality yet, and that’s fair, because it’s not even October. But we have seen enough to know this: The offensive line is a problem. That was true in the offseason. It was true in the preseason. It is true after three weeks, in which Howell has been sacked 19 times. You’ll hear a lot about how not all the sacks are on the line. Put it another way: A lot of the sacks are on the line.

“As an offensive lineman, that’s on us as a unit,” said new right tackle Andrew Wylie, who at times seemed to roll out a welcome mat for eager Bills’ defenders, opening the door and all but offering hors d’oeuvres. “We take that personally. We got to do a better job of keeping [Howell] upright.”

Amen. Because if Howell is not only going to develop as a quarterback, but merely survive, he can’t be hit like he has been. That has to change.

Here’s another thing that has to change: Trusting Antonio Gibson with the football. It might seem silly to say, but when Washington took over the ball early in the fourth quarter — on Daron Payne’s bat-down of an Allen fourth-down pass — this was still a game, just 16-0 despite Buffalo’s visceral and statistical dominance.

Given the resilience this team had shown — and congratulated itself about — in overcoming deficits in the first two weeks, it wasn’t crazy to suggest the Commanders, despite it all, were still in the game. Every play mattered. They were kind of getting killed but were only down two scores.

The Commanders’ fearsome front four is reunited. Opponents, beware.

Yet on first down from their own 37, Howell found Gibson with a short pass. Bills cornerback Taron Johnson hit Gibson. And Gibson fumbled. That’s two lost fumbles in three games this year, and it brings back memories of the six fumbles Gibson had in 2021.

Again, we don’t yet have this team’s full identity. But it’s obvious that against the NFL’s best teams, it’s not to the point where it can overcome straight-up handing the ball to the opponent.

Gibson wasn’t the lone culprit, of course. Howell’s picks were of all varieties — a ball without enough air under it, one underthrown in the end zone, a pick-six on which you had to wonder what he was thinking. Rivera thought about pulling him, in part for his own safety. But at this point, you wouldn’t be protecting the franchise quarterback, because you’re still finding out whether you have the franchise quarterback.

“Obviously, it starts with me,” Howell said. “I’ve got to take care of the football.”

That’s the positive, then. This isn’t the time for finger-pointing, and the players seemed to understand. There is a balance here between flushing what happened Sunday and figuring out why it did. There’s no way to tell how they handle it until they reemerge in Philadelphia.

“How are we going to react? How are we going to handle it? That’s what I’m looking for now,” Rivera said, echoing what he’d told his team. “Now we’re going to find out just how tough we are. Are we mentally tough, are we physically tough enough, to get through it?

“Winning masks a lot of things. The bare truth is out there right now. We know exactly, based on the tape, what happened.”

What happened was a game the Commanders billed as a stage to see where they stood against the best teams in the league. The result was a blowout.

“The good thing is the sun will come up tomorrow,” Howell said, “another opportunity to get better and go to work.”

There’s a lot to get better at, and so much work to do.

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