And then he paused and pounded the lectern with his right fist.
“There’s no moral victories,” he added. “But we’re going to learn from it.”
Most NFL Sundays are about survival. For the Commanders on this particular Sunday, style mattered, even as the Eagles danced a jig of relief following Jake Elliott’s game-ending 54-yard field goal. The Eagles expect to win each week, and when that’s the standard, their 34-31 overtime victory over the Commanders will be dissected here as disappointing, as cause for concern. That’s Philadelphia, for sure, but it’s also an example of how preseason and week-to-week expectations color everything in this league.
But at this point in the Commanders’ evolution, there is little embarrassing about a competitive, man-we-might-have-had-it loss on the road. The Eagles have their eyes on the gaudiest prize the sport has to offer. The Commanders are still figuring out where they fit, if they do at all.
“That’s a tough loss, man,” star wide receiver Terry McLaurin said, his pads still on well after Elliott’s kick sailed through the uprights. “That’s tough. … Still trying to process that.”
That’s the right tenor, and it was shared throughout the cramped visiting locker room. It was all over Rivera’s face and in that slam of the lectern. List the reasons for such a demeanor, Ron.
“The outcome,” he said. “The ending. That’s a hell of a football team we played out there. But I think we’ve got a hell of a football team in this locker room.”
We’ll figure that out in the weeks and months to come, beginning Thursday night against the winless Chicago Bears. But whatever the Commanders are to become, what Washington couldn’t repeat was the abomination of last week’s 37-3 home debacle against the Buffalo Bills. That loss came with a stench that indicated the season could go either way. Unravel again, against an NFL East opponent that — in personnel and playoff success — is superior to the Commanders, and the train could come off the tracks.
Instead, with Washington at 2-2, it’s still on course, even if it’s not chugging along at its most efficient. At 4-0, the Eagles are where their fans expected them to be. The Commanders, if their fans are being realistic, are where they should have been expected to be, too.
“We lost,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said. “At the end of the day, we played tough. If we’re not going to play tough, why are we in the league?”
These games are always tough to sort out, these mixes of frustration and encouragement. There’s something about an NFL locker room after a gut punch of a loss that’s edgier than one in which embarrassment ruled the day. In a way, the nine-sack, five-turnover dud against the Bills more easily flows down the shower drain than Sunday’s narrow loss, when the suds of what-about-this or what-if-that can remain on the skin.
“All losses sting, but I would say this one stings a little bit more,” said second-year wideout Jahan Dotson, who caught a 10-yard dart from quarterback Sam Howell on the final play of regulation to force overtime. “I keep going back to, you know, the opportunities you had in the game. And we just didn’t capitalize on some of them.”
They did clean up quite a bit, though. Howell’s effort in that regard was most important. A week after he looked lost as he threw four interceptions against the swarming Bills, he took care of the ball, going 29 for 41 for 290 yards and the score to Dotson when no other result would have worked. His career is only beginning to take shape, but what we have already learned about Howell — drafted last year but effectively still a rookie — is he doesn’t mind getting knocked down because he only knows one response: getting back up and, just as importantly, flushing what happened.
“It was a hell of a performance by Sam,” Rivera said. “He bounced back. He learned from last week. He grew, and he got better. It was reflected in the way he played. It was reflected in the way he led our offense.”
Nowhere was that more obvious than on the final drive of regulation, when the Commanders took over at their 36 with 1:36 remaining. Howell had some clutch completions, including a calmly thrown ball on fourth and two to Dyami Brown that kept the Commanders in the game, then a zipped completion to McLaurin on third and two with 10 seconds remaining.
But in a world in which he is supposed to learn and improve from week to week — which is precisely the world Howell lives in — his decisions to throw the ball away and live another day are just as important. Twice on that drive — on second and 17 from his team’s 40, then while facing a blitz on first down from the Philadelphia 29 — Howell smartly threw the ball out of bounds.
He wasn’t perfect. He was sacked five times, bringing his total to an astonishing 24 after four weeks. But he’s clearly learning.
“He’s a student of the game,” McLaurin said. “He’s a quick learner.”
Could Howell notice his growth in this game?
“I haven’t really thought much from a personal standpoint,” he said. “I’m kind of just more disappointed about the game.”
That is how this team is approaching things. McLaurin, for one, clearly thought he got two feet down on a third-down play on the Commanders’ overtime possession. But instead of complaining, he flipped the script.
“I’m about accountability,” he said. “I just got to find a way to get my feet in.”
Howell’s take on the same play?
“I could have got it out a little quicker,” he said, “and given him a little more room.”
So that’s two teammates on a play that didn’t get made, each taking responsibility for why it wasn’t. There’s part of the Commanders that could be satisfied with Sunday’s performance. In the immediate aftermath, that part was hard to find.
“I’m about those W’s, man,” McLaurin said. “It’s good, but it’s not good enough.”
What would be good enough: a take-it-right-to-’em, wire-to-wire victory Thursday over the visiting Bears, who somehow blew a 28-7 lead against previously winless Denver in a 31-28 home loss Sunday. Chicago is in disarray. The Commanders’ duty: Make it worse. If they’re growing as their frustrated coach believes they are, that’s exactly what they will do.
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