The Washington Commanders won Sunday 20-16 over the Arizona Cardinals before a sellout crowd of hometown fans at FedEx Field — and it was the only outcome that was acceptable.
Any other ending would have not fit the narrative of a day some Washington fans have awaited for 24 years, a day they have played over in their heads many times when they felt sick to their stomachs to have their devotion destroyed by a franchise owner who brought shame to their beloved football team.
Dan Snyder is no longer the owner. How could they lose?
They couldn’t, and the league seemed to make sure this would be the outcome of such a glorious day by scheduling possibly the worst team in the league, the Cardinals, whose fans feel the same sickness that Washington fans have and would never travel 2,300 miles to watch their team play.
The crowd of 64,693 fans, nearly all of them Commanders’ supporters, were fueled by the joy that they were in a stadium no longer owned by the most hated man in Washington. Josh Harris and his group are the landlords now, and that reality filled the parking lot early with tailgaters ready to celebrate something they thought they wouldn’t see in their lifetime.
Lose? How could the Commanders lose, on this day, of all days?
They nearly did, though, thanks to Snyder’s leftovers that came with the franchise — head coach Ron Rivera specifically, who picked an untested and unproven fifth-round draft pick at quarterback in Sam Howell to start this game with, if nothing else, spiritual consequences.
Howell had one touchdown pass, another one on the ground, an interception (on a ball slightly tipped, as if that makes it OK) and a fumble near his own end zone. He completed 19 of 31 passes for 202 yards and it was clear that the Cardinals thought their best chance to win was coming after Howell. They hit him late in the first quarter and kept hitting him — six sacks in all — and it nearly worked. The Cardinals led at halftime 13-10 and at the end of the third quarter 16-10.
“He had his moments,” Rivera said when asked to evaluate Howell’s play. “We’ll evaluate it off the tape.”
The problem for Arizona was they had to do something with the ball and just couldn’t count on Howell coughing it up for the whole game.
Their quarterback was Josh Dobbs, a fourth-round draft pick by Pittsburgh in 2017 who is now on his fifth team in the league, and eventually the veteran Washington defensive line woke up in time to implement their own version of the Arizona plan — in Washington’s case, make Dobbs’ life miserable.
The defense forced two fumbles that led to a 20-16 Commanders win, sending fans home with a nice bow on what had been a long-awaited gift of a day.
Rivera said they gave the game ball to Josh Harris. The band of other owners will all get one as well, Rivera said. This wasn’t a preseason game ball souvenir. This was a real NFL victory, the first one in the age of enlightenment. They should take good care of that ball. There may not be many more to come this season.
“We appreciate the fans coming out but we have to be a better football team” were the first words out of Rivera’s mouth. He couldn’t wait to say it, and he repeated it several times. “We have to protect the ball better … we have to make better decisions … we can’t beat ourselves.”
Remember, this was the new and improved Eric Bieniemy offense that managed to gain just 248 yards of total offense against a team that appeared to be tanking for USC quarterback Caleb Williams and the No. 1 pick in 2024 before it even began the season by cutting veteran quarterback Colt McCoy in training camp.
The Cardinals had a new coach — former Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon — and they looked like the better-prepared team.
“We have a lot of growing to do,” Rivera said. “We have to do things better.”
This is Rivera’s fourth season as head coach.
All of this is background noise, though. In the big scheme of things, Sunday’s outcome meant little when compared to the enormity of the change of ownership. Winning was better than losing, a fitting ending to a day of celebration.
But new players can be drafted, free agents signed, coaches fired and hired and front offices changed. NFL teams do it every year. Forcing out a hateful, despicable owner who seemed destined to continue to wreck the dreams and hopes of a damaged fan base — that is like a supernova.
That’s the real victory. Game ball indeed for Josh Harris. Game balls for everyone.
You can hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.