The Commanders are as they ever were: A team that’s a few plays away

SEATTLE — When the Washington Commanders began this season with two white-knuckle victories, it felt as if they were developing some close-game magic. Whether it was luck, grit or the jolt of new ownership, they appeared to be a team acquiring valuable experience pulling out victories, no matter how suspect they looked.

Ten weeks into the season, it’s clear those games were as much about the shortcomings of the Arizona Cardinals and Denver Broncos as they were about the improvement of the Commanders. On Sunday, Washington fell to a 4-6 record with a last-second, 29-26 loss to the Seattle Seahawks at Lumen Field. They again played just well enough to expose that they’re not good enough.

The Commanders fought through their defensive mistakes and offensive imbalance. Promising young quarterback Sam Howell led a comeback and tied the game with a touchdown pass to Dyami Brown with 52 seconds remaining. Still, they lost. Their past four games have been decided by a touchdown or less. They have lost three of them, with the lone victory coming last week against the offensively inept New England Patriots.

Since winning its first two games by a combined six points, Washington is 1-4 in its past five games decided by seven points or fewer. In his fourth season, Coach Ron Rivera has done what most functional NFL franchises figure out: He has raised the Commanders’ floor. Their ceiling, however, still isn’t high enough for them to stand up.

Commanders’ rallies are all for naught in a painful loss to the Seahawks

The epitaph for this season — and for the past four years — is basically this: Hey, we graduated from train-wreck football. But that has left Washington only as a standard-grade mediocre team.

The Commanders entered Sunday one game out of a wild-card playoff spot, and against a Seahawks team with a struggling quarterback and a defense that hadn’t been able to stop the run the previous three weeks, they had a terrific chance to go on the road and even their record. But hanging around contention isn’t the same as contending. The NFC may present opportunities for Washington to remain mathematically in the playoff picture, but this team isn’t worthy. And if that remains true, Rivera and the football operation he leads won’t be worthy of running the team for new owner Josh Harris.

The Commanders started well Sunday, scoring on their opening drive with a 51-yard touchdown pass from Howell to Brian Robinson Jr., sparking a day in which Washington’s offense thrived by throwing short passes to running backs. Robinson had six receptions for 119 yards. Antonio Gibson finished with five catches for 42 yards and a touchdown. For the game, Howell completed 29 of 44 passes for 312 yards and three touchdowns. He was really good.

But the offense is still a mess. Coordinator Eric Bieniemy has his young quarterback playing better than expected, but the Commanders can’t control the time of possession with their pass-heavy aspirations. They finished with just 14 rushes in the game, 12 of them by running backs. They rushed for just 68 yards, only 51 of which came from running backs. Imbalance can be tolerated, but this performance indicated more of a stubborn indifference to running the ball against an opponent whose run defense had fallen apart.

The Seahawks’ defense had allowed 193.3 rushing yards per game — at a clip of 5.5 yards per carry — and five rushing touchdowns over its three previous games, including Baltimore’s 298-yard rushing performance last week. But Howell dropped back to pass on 17 of the game’s first 21 plays.

That’s fine if an offense is thriving and a defense is capable of operating under the stress of being on the field. But Washington gave up 489 yards to Seattle. Quarterback Geno Smith played his best game in several weeks, throwing for 369 yards and two touchdowns without a turnover. The Seahawks also rushed for 120 yards.

“I think there were a couple of things that were inconsistent as far as opportunities to stop the run and put ourselves in better situations,” Rivera said of the defense.

Four takeaways from the Commanders’ loss to the Seahawks

After Howell tied the game with 52 seconds left, Seattle went 50 yards on seven plays. Smith did most of the damage on two passes to DK Metcalf totaling 44 yards, which put Seattle in range for Jason Myers to win it with a 43-yard field goal as time expired.

The lack of train-wreck football doesn’t mean the Commanders aren’t frustrating. They’re not a weekly embarrassment, not dysfunctional, and there’s little reason to question their most basic priorities anymore. But all that adds up to is a team that continues to win seven or so games, which is about three short of sustained success. The Commanders are a 7-10 program. That’s what they roughly were under Jay Gruden, Rivera’s predecessor, before a collapse in Gruden’s final season that resulted in a 3-13 finish. For the past eight seasons, Washington has mostly been stuck in the same place. The texture of mediocrity changes depending on who’s guiding the team, but the results are disappointingly similar.

These Commanders are good enough to collect themselves on the road, with Howell leading a 73-yard fourth-quarter drive to tie the game at 19. Then the defense failed to respond, helping Seattle regain the lead with a penalty-addled effort. But Howell came right back and found Dyami Brown to set up the dramatic ending.

For all their experience in close games, for all the stakes of a season slipping away, the defense couldn’t even hold on to force overtime. The big play continues to get them. Several players on that unit struggled, but in the fourth quarter, cornerback Benjamin St-Juste had a particularly difficult time defending Metcalf.

“I can give you the politically right answer, this and that and whatever,” St-Juste said. “I’m going to take the burn on this one, honestly. I feel like I cost my team this win.”

At 4-6 with a difficult remaining schedule, the Commanders don’t seem to have a pathway to 9-8. They look as 7-10 as ever. At the end of the season, they will figure they were close enough — a few plays here or there — to have had a winning season. But good teams find a way, and the mediocre ones are left to lament squandered opportunities.

That kind of regret has become too familiar for Rivera’s squad.

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