HOUSTON — Jonathan Allen, still in his NFL-branded undershirt and burgundy football pants, stood in front of assembled reporters following the Washington Commanders’ fifth win in six games. As far as anyone could tell, his shirt was not stained from a Busch Light shower. Nor was he wearing his teammates’ expensive gold and platinum chains around his neck, ready to become Instagram famous.
He did not seem overly excited about the 23-10 victory over the Houston Texans. Allen comes from the University of Alabama football factory, where winning is breathing. So Sunday was just one more stackable win, not a championship.
But just as Allen was offering his insight in monotone, a reporter asked, “Are you having fun?” And the strangest thing happened to Allen’s face. His eyes softened. The edges of his lips curled up. And if you didn’t know any better, Allen, the Commanders’ cover boy for stoicism, was actually smiling.
That’s how well things are going for the Washington Commanders. Wait. Check that. The on-the-bubble-for-a-wild-card-spot Washington Commanders. At the end of the softest part of the schedule, they’ve emerged with a 6-5 (winning!) record, a sense of peace at quarterback and a whole lot of momentum. They’ll spend the rest of the season attempting to be among the top seven teams in the NFC.
So, Commanders fans, it’s okay to drink this up. Pop open a cold one, rock your finest jewelry and celebrate just as Taylor Heinicke did Monday night following that momentous win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Coach Ron Rivera might not have appreciated the boozy celebration certain players streamed on social media. But the fun police shouldn’t stop you — you poor, poor fan, oppressed by the reign of Daniel Snyder.
These days, your loyalty has been paying off. The Commanders have rebounded from a 1-4 start thanks in large part to a defense in overdrive and a forgiving schedule that came at the most fortuitous time. Starting in Week 6, four of the Commanders’ next six opponents had losing records. So, taking away that Monday night victory over the unbeaten Eagles — a triumph so significant that it might define the season as well as Rivera’s tenure — the Commanders have feasted on a cavalcade of cupcakes.
On Sunday, they finally reached the gooey center, meeting the Texans, a franchise better suited as a doormat than an NFL team. This could’ve been a trap game, especially after the win in Philly. Instead, the Commanders displayed maturity in not acting as though Philly was their Super Bowl and arriving in Houston to put in work.
“One of the main points of emphasis this week was, ‘Yeah, it was a great win on Monday, but the thing that could erase all of that was coming down here and laying an egg,’ ” Heinicke said. “I felt the guys battled through. Again, it wasn’t the cleanest game, but it’s a win nonetheless.”
And it was another win for the newly minted starting quarterback. Before kickoff, NFL Network and ESPN reported that Rivera had decided to stick with Heinicke and move Carson Wentz to the backup role once he returns from his finger injury.
“We’re going to go with Taylor,” Rivera confirmed after the game.
This settles, for now, the team’s most pressing question, and the past few weeks should’ve made this an easy call. This team has played well for Heinicke and won. But Heinicke has benefited greatly from something Wentz never had during his six weeks in charge: wholeness surrounding him.
Washington’s running game has clicked with the added strength of rookie Brian Robinson Jr., who returned the week before Wentz went down. The defense went from posting just two takeaways in six weeks (both coming in the Oct. 13 win at Chicago, the game in which Wentz fractured his ring finger) to 10 since the reboot of the Heinicke era.
Should Heinicke deserve the credit for sprinkling fairy dust all over the locker room? Probably not, but the locker room loves him. And at the moment, this is a winning locker room.
“Coach [Nick] Saban used to always say that the team decides the starting quarterback,” Allen said. “Every time he comes in to play, the team just rallies around him. The offense rallies around him. Can’t really understand it, can’t really explain it. It just is what it is.”
Even Sunday, Heinicke looked lucky at times and not special. On his first drop-back, he badly overthrew Terry McLaurin with a ball that should’ve been intercepted. Still, he threw for 191 yards, the team rushed for 153, and Joey Slye connected on three field goals.
Though Washington’s offense produced lukewarm results, nothing quite compared to the offensive drudgery of the 2022 Houston Texans. The franchise has nosedived since racking up six AFC South titles from 2011 to 2019. After benching and then trading franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson — and his baggage — to Cleveland, the Texans have won just five games over the past season and a half.
This season, as the Texans have stacked up losses at home — they have not won at NRG Stadium since Dec. 26 — some Houstonians haven’t found a new hobby to fill their Sunday afternoons. Die-hards, along with plenty of Commanders fans, were scattered across the red and blue seats. And the Texans rewarded their loyalty with a putrid offensive performance.
In the first half, four of Houston’s six possessions resulted in three-and-outs. The others: a pick-six gifted from Davis Mills to Commanders cornerback Kendall Fuller and a six-play possession that netted four yards.
For kicks and giggles, a fun exercise would’ve been to start the Texans’ offense in the red zone, blindfold the Commanders’ front four and, after the snap, give Mills a “one Mississippi, two Mississippi,” all the way to 20. Then, wait to see if the Texans could make a play for positive yardage. Judging by how Allen, Daron Payne and Montez Sweat took up residence in the Texans’ backfield and how Washington’s secondary hounded the receivers, that wouldn’t have been enough.
Still, Washington had fun anyway — as evidenced by the smile on Allen’s face.
“We just try to have fun,” he said. “Football is a very tough game and very stressful. And people see it on Sundays, but they really don’t see what goes into it Monday through … Saturday. And if the average fan really saw what football was like, I think a lot would be turned off. It’s a nasty game. And it’s physical, and it’s tough, and it’s emotionally draining. So when you have success, because it’s very hard to make plays in the NFL, you got to enjoy one another.”
Allen could’ve been talking about the experience of being a Commanders fan. It’s tough and emotionally draining. But lately, football has been the focus, and that should give anyone who cheers for this team a reason to enjoy the moment.
Empty calories or not, a win over a cupcake is still a win. Soak it in, because the next four games (against the Atlanta Falcons, the New York Giants twice and the San Francisco 49ers) will test the Commanders as they take on teams in the playoff hunt. Just like that smile on Allen’s face, these good times may not last long.