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Facing problems big and small, Commanders are doomed by their own mistakes

Commanders Coach Ron Rivera stands on the sideline during his team's loss to the Cowboys on Sunday. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

ARLINGTON, Tex. — There can be wisdom found in old-time cartoons, especially after watching the comedy of errors that unfolded Sunday from the Washington Commanders.

Try to picture the cartoon fisherman alone in a boat. He notices water leaking from a hole and tries to plug it with his finger. But once that’s fixed, another hole appears, so his free hand now turns into an emergency cork. Then water springs from another hole and another one and another one until the boat looks more like a fountain.

The fisherman fruitlessly trying to plug holes? That’s the Commanders.

They spent last week against the Philadelphia Eagles helping quarterback Carson Wentz to his feet after he absorbed nine sacks. And because they played from behind, the running game remained in check. But on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, Washington fixed that leak and took what it wanted at the line of scrimmage.

The only problem: After their 25-10 loss, which dropped them to 1-3, it’s clear the Commanders still have way too many holes to plug.

On a week-to-week basis, the fixes may seem as micro as establishing the run — which Washington did, going from mustering only 87 yards on the ground against Philadelphia to gaining 142 (and averaging 5.3 per carry) against a solid Dallas defense.

Commanders drop to 1-3 as season’s spiral continues with loss to Cowboys

“[The Cowboys are] a pretty good team, but we knew they were light up front, and guys wanted to run the football,” running back J.D. McKissic said. “Coach made [the decision] that he wanted to run it, and that’s what we went out and did.”

McKissic makes it sound oh so simple: Coach Ron Rivera basically speaking the running game into existence, and — voilà — the Commanders spending Sunday afternoon in Texas on the run.

Antonio Gibson led the team with 13 carries for 49 yards, but his best play stretched for 11. Jonathan Williams zipped off a long run of 23 yards, and McKissic nearly broke one for a touchdown in the second quarter before linebacker Leighton Vander Esch pushed him out of bounds at the Dallas 17-yard line. McKissic’s run still gobbled up 33 yards and set up the Commanders’ only touchdown of the game.

The big runs from the line of scrimmage solved one issue. But plenty more popped up in Dallas because, in the grand scheme, the Commanders address only one glaring problem at a time.

In the offseason, Washington made such a big deal of finally — finally! — getting a guy it could call a franchise quarterback. But having done so, the team placed him behind a leaky offensive line. On Sunday, while jump-starting the running game — but also establishing the game’s trend of committing momentum-sapping penalties — the unit had its share of breakdowns.

“It’s not like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve been playing with this guy for three years, two years or the whole freaking time I’ve been here,’ ” tackle Sam Cosmi said. “It’s like, new guy, new guy. … It does affect us a little bit.”

It hurts having injuries across the depth chart and a rotating cast at center, but it also doesn’t help when the free agent signing at right guard has had no impact on the season.

Washington signed Trai Turner to replace Brandon Scherff, but he was hampered by a quadriceps injury and missed almost all of training camp. He hasn’t been right through the first four games, and in the second quarter Sunday — following a false start penalty and sack — Turner was benched.

“Well, I think … Trai isn’t quite where he needs to be yet,” Rivera said, “so the decision was to go with Saahdiq [Charles], get him in there.”

The issues didn’t end with Turner. During their third series after halftime, the Commanders committed a pair of penalties that repelled the offense. After getting sacked once, Wentz must have decided to take matters into his own hands. He would rather throw the ball away — for a pair of intentional grounding penalties — than get hit, and his poor decision on second and eight at the Dallas 17 pushed the team back 14 yards. The very next play, Cosmi was called for a false start.

What could have been a flirtation with the red zone ended with Washington kicking a 45-yard field goal.

The Commanders’ offense has stalled — and a fearsome Cowboys D awaits

“I thought we were really doing a good job in the run game, really pounding it on them and all that stuff. I just think we need to finish in the red zone. And then … penalties really killed us,” Cosmi said. “That’s the biggest thing we have to eliminate, not hurt ourselves. I think that’s a big thing.”

Well, one of the big things. And the Commanders haven’t shown yet that they’re good enough to be able to plug the holes from their own mistakes. They have struggled to find takeaways on defense. They got two Sunday, but penalties negated both interceptions of Dallas backup quarterback Cooper Rush.

“Certain penalties are concentration-focused,” Rivera said. “Sure, it gets loud. Sure, the crowd gets into it. Sure, they’re jumping the line, something like that. But we’ve got to sit in there, and we’ve got to be disciplined. That’s something that we as coaches got to make sure gets corrected. That was not good enough. We hurt ourselves and took ourselves out of certain opportunities.”

Rivera’s not a prude; he will utter an expletive into the microphone if the occasion calls for it. But it seemed as if after this loss he needed great self-control not to let a naughty word slip out. He ended his answer about the penalties by pausing in mid-sentence and gripping the lectern a little tighter.

“When those things happen,” Rivera said, catching himself, “that really messes things up.”

The Commanders falling to the bottom of the NFC East with consecutive divisional losses — who could have blamed anyone on the team for needing a bleep button? And week after week, the frustration will only mount if the water keeps springing loose and the problems become too plenty to plug.