EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — One of the weirder games of the Ron Rivera era — a roller-coaster, 30-28 loss to the New York Jets on Sunday afternoon — was actually a win for the Washington Commanders.
If the Commanders (4-11) had pulled off the dramatic comeback, they would’ve greatly hurt their position in the 2024 draft, falling to about the eighth pick with the potential to sink further.
But instead, Jets kicker Greg Zuerlein nailed a 54-yard field goal with five seconds left, and the Commanders avoided being leapfrogged by the Jets (6-9) and others — and a win by the New England Patriots (4-11) on Sunday night boosted Washington into the draft’s No. 3 spot.
1. Chicago via Carolina (2-13)
6. Los Angeles Chargers (5-10)
There’s no guarantee that a higher pick will yield a better player. Chase Young, the No. 2 choice just four drafts ago, didn’t even finish his rookie contract in Washington. But having a higher pick means having more elite prospects to choose from and a better chance to trade down and accumulate extra draft capital — and the value of a top pick was emphasized Sunday when the Commanders benched Sam Howell again, suggesting he might not be the franchise quarterback the team hoped he would be.
Maybe most importantly, a new front office is expected to be making the picks. If ownership hits on its hires and those hires hit on their picks, the new regime could accelerate the reboot.
Washington has almost cemented a top-four pick. It is in line to be a heavy underdog in its last two games, both at home, against NFC heavyweights San Francisco (11-3 entering Monday) and Dallas (10-5). The best chance for a win figures to be against the Cowboys, who struggle on the road and could have little or nothing to play for in the finale — as in Week 18 last season, when Washington won, 26-6.
But last year, Washington went into its last game effectively locked into a draft pick between No. 14 and No. 16. This year, the stakes are higher.
Washington moved into the No. 3 spot by a hair when New England defeated Denver. Chicago (via 2-13 Carolina) and Arizona (3-12) are the only teams ahead of the Commanders. The first tiebreaker is weaker strength of schedule, as calculated by the winning percentage of the team’s opponents. Through Sunday, Washington (.520) is well ahead of Arizona (.564) and just a smidgen in front of New England (.522). (The second tiebreaker is head-to-head record, and the Commanders beat both of those teams.)
But if Washington gets a win, it could fall as far as seventh. The three teams right behind the Commanders — Tennessee (.524), the Los Angeles Chargers (.524) and the New York Giants (.510) — have strength of schedules worse or about the same.
The difference between the third and the seventh pick might not seem steep. After all, mountains of research show the values of picks decline much slower than the famous, misunderstood and misattributed “Jimmy Johnson draft-pick value chart.” But the same people who have improved that chart — including salary cap experts Jason Fitzgerald and Brad Spielberger — also have reaffirmed the obvious conclusion that the chance of finding a superstar increases with a higher pick in the draft.
If the Commanders end up with a top-three pick, their new general manager could start a major overhaul. That executive could target one of the quarterbacks in a well-regarded class headlined by Southern California’s Caleb Williams and North Carolina’s Drake Maye. The Commanders also could like the quarterback prospects whom analysts currently consider on the second tier, such as Washington’s Michael Penix Jr., Oregon’s Bo Nix and LSU’s Jayden Daniels, who won the Heisman Trophy but is just three months younger than Howell.
The Commanders could get an elite offensive tackle, such as Penn State’s Olumuyiwa Fashanu or Notre Dame’s Joe Alt, or an elite skill player, such as Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. or Georgia tight end Brock Bowers.
But it’s late December — way too early for too many specifics. For now, there are still games to be played, and the players, coaches and executives wearing Commanders gear remain stuck in an awkward purgatory.
Rivera, the public face of this era, said he didn’t think about the fans who were rooting for the Commanders to lose Sunday.
“I’m going to show up, and we’re going to work, and we’re going to play to win,” he said. “Everything we do is about winning. It’s got nothing to do about losing, okay? If that’s what [some fans are] thinking, then it’s unfortunate.”
But it’s hard to blame those fans. The hope of summer was eroded by a long, painful fall into limbo. Different owner, same results: another overwhelmed coach and another underwhelming quarterback. If things are going to change, if new ownership really can give the fans a team to be proud of, then Sunday was another small step toward putting the franchise in the best position possible. That loss was a win.