Commanders usher in a new era in season opener vs. Cardinals

Sep 9, 2023, 5:00 PM

Washington Commanders head coach Ron Rivera...

Washington Commanders head coach Ron Rivera looks on from the sidelines in an NFL preseason game between the Washington Commanders and the Cincinnati Bengals at FedExField on August 26, 2023 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Tony Davis/Getty Images)

(Photo by Tony Davis/Getty Images)

Josh Harris and his group are the Washington Commanders’ new owners, Sam Howell is their new starting quarterback, Eric Bieniemy is their new offensive coordinator and fans have flocked back.

“A lot of exciting stuff going on,” Chase Young said.

It’s an exciting time for the Commanders as they start the season against the Arizona Cardinals, who won’t have Kyler Murray and are projected to be among the worst teams in the NFL. Favored and expecting a sellout crowd of nearly all home fans, the opener Sunday is setting up for Washington to celebrate a fresh start under new ownership.

“There has been a buzz all offseason about this team,” top receiver and face of the franchise Terry McLaurin said. “To be honest, it only really matters if you come out and you win, and that’s our objective going against a Cardinals team who’s going to come in and give us their best. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

How big a challenge is it? The Commanders are 7-point favorites on FanDuel Sportsbook, which also lists Arizona’s over/under for wins this season at a league-low 4.5.

Arizona has 11 rookies on the active roster, which is just the second time in the past 20 years the team has had that many in Week 1.

Plus, all signs are pointing to journeyman Joshua Dobbs starting at quarterback for the Cardinals less than three weeks after they acquired him from Cleveland. They have a new coach in former Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, who won’t disclose whether Dobbs or rookie Clayton Tune will start, citing a competitive advantage.

“It’s a new year and new players,” Gannon said. “I’m very pleased with all of them, truthfully, and especially Dobbs with that position because it’s so mental.”

The mentality in Washington is optimism, even if external expectations for coach Ron Rivera’s fourth season are that the team will miss the playoffs in a loaded NFC East. With a defense that on paper looks as good as, if not better than, the unit that ranked third in the league last year in place, the Commanders will likely go as far as Howell’s play and Bieniemy’s play-calling takes them.

Drawing Arizona in Week 1 is a good start, coming off Harris’ group buying the team from former owner Dan Snyder for a North American professional sports record $6.05 billion, which was approved in July. Crowds attended training camp by the thousands, and the team’s announcement that the opener was sold out is better than sellouts in previous years when FedEx Field was full of opposing fans.

“The beautiful thing about the sellout for the Arizona Cardinals game is Arizona doesn’t travel,” co-owner Mitch Rales said. “There’s going to be close to 60,000 fans that are rooting for one team. These players have never seen that.”

The D.C. market hasn’t seen this level of anticipation to start a season since Robert Griffin III’s rookie year more than a decade ago. But the entire organization from ownership down knows it now comes down to results on the field.

“Now we have to go out and do our job and play to the best of our abilities,” Rivera said. “This is what we’ve been working for, and this is what’s exciting and we’ve got to live up to it.”


Dobbs is confident he’ll have a good grasp of the playbook by the opener. As for the names of his teammates? That would be a bonus.

“That’s a great goal,” Dobbs said, laughing. “Luckily, it’s on everyone’s (jersey) so I’ll have a cheat sheet.”

Gannon said Wednesday his “players know the plan” at quarterback. The Commanders don’t seem concerned about not knowing for sure.

“You definitely go through that at times,” cornerback Kendall Fuller said of the uncertainty. “I think you just kind of just try to learn the strengths and weaknesses of both guys and how you think they’ll come out.”

Murray will miss at least the first four games of the season after being put on the physically unable to perform list. Murray is still recovering after tearing the ACL in his right knee in December.


McLaurin sprained a toe on his right foot during a preseason game Aug. 21 and only returned to practice this week. He was off the injury report Friday and is set to play.

“I’m feeling pretty good,” McLaurin said Wednesday. “I’m confident with where things are right now.”

McLaurin has gone over 1,000 yards receiving in each of the past three seasons.

Young is out with a neck injury. Young got what he and the team called a stinger in the preseason opener Aug. 11.

“The young man is champing at the bit,” Rivera said. “He’s done everything that he possibly could, probably, and he’s getting himself ready to play.”


It’s also a new era for the Cardinals after they hired Gannon and new general manager Monti Ossenfort last winter as part of several changes following a 4-13 season. Arizona is in a rebuild after losing veteran stars J.J. Watt and DeAndre Hopkins and filling the roster with mostly younger players.

Gannon is coming off helping the Eagles reach the Super Bowl before a 38-35 loss to the Chiefs, whose offense was run by Andy Reid and Bieniemy.

Gannon is one of three coaches making his head NFL debut in Week 1, along with Houston’s DeMeco Ryans and Indianapolis’ Shane Steichen.

The Eagles beat Washington three of four times over the past two seasons with Gannon serving as Philadelphia’s coordinator.

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