Led by Sam Howell and Eric Bieniemy, Commanders have a new vibe on offense

It didn’t sound like it was only the second day of organized team activities for the Washington Commanders. For the better part of two hours Wednesday, Eric Bieniemy delivered a steady stream of loud, exacting directives.

Frustrated by his unit’s pace after one play, Washington’s new offensive coordinator hollered, “We have X amount of time to get this [stuff] right, so get in the huddle, and let’s go!”

Later, a coach tried to stop a snap because the defense only had 10 players on the field, and Bieniemy shouted: “Don’t worry about it! Just play!”

In the red zone, quarterback Sam Howell tried to zip a throw through a tight window, but safety Percy Butler picked it off.

“You threw it! You go get it!” Bieniemy yelled, chiding Howell for not chasing Butler.

Howell, who took all the first-team reps, seemed to respond. During one play, he didn’t like how the team got into formation and called players back into a huddle so they could do it again — this time, correctly.

“Coach Bieniemy stresses taking charge as the quarterback,” Coach Ron Rivera said.

Last year, the Commanders’ offense — specifically the quarterback play, offensive line and play caller — torpedoed the team’s season. This spring, Washington has a new first-string quarterback and a new play caller, and only one starter from last year’s line is likely to return in his original spot: left tackle Charles Leno Jr., who was not present for the start of OTAs. (Rivera downplayed Leno’s absence because the veteran is familiar with this West Coast-based scheme from his time in Chicago.)

From last season: Commanders players are frustrated with offensive play-calling

The offensive revamp — along with top draft picks on defense and the hope that one day soon-ish the NFL will ratify the sale of the franchise — has brought hope that this can be the breakout season Rivera wanted in 2022. Running back Antonio Gibson described “a new energy” in the facility. Defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said he felt it too, and he acknowledged it’s largely because of the potential ownership change.

“I know a lot of fans were unhappy with how things were run, so just to see the energy from the fans, it’s exciting, man,” he said. “This is a great city, and once we get things going and rolling this season, it’s going to be on fire.”

In the pass-happy modern NFL, no pair will be as critical to the Commanders capitalizing on their potential as Bieniemy and Howell (or, if Howell falters, veteran backup Jacoby Brissett). The coordinator, 53, is tasked with molding the quarterback, 22, and in his first days as the leader of the offense, Howell looked poised in the huddle, though it was impossible to hear whether he could cleanly deliver the new offensive language in a play-call.

On the field, Howell was aggressive from the pocket and accurate throwing on the run. If his timing got out of sync with his feet and reads, Bieniemy or new quarterbacks coach Tavita Pritchard harped on him to stay on time.

“Sam’s done a heck of a job,” Bieniemy said Saturday, ahead of OTAs. “Sam’s very professional. He’s very critical of himself. He’s very self-aware.”

Center Nick Gates and tight end Logan Thomas described Bieniemy as a hard-charging general and Howell as the calm, unflappable leader of the unit. Star wideout Terry McLaurin acknowledged Howell had grown a lot from the kid who was, at this time last year, a quiet rookie behind Carson Wentz and Taylor Heinicke.

“You can tell he’s getting more comfortable being a leader in a vocal role,” McLaurin said. “[Bieniemy] and the offensive staff put a lot of onus on him to come out and take control of the huddle and make sure the splits are right, and he’s running the show, and he’s doing a really good job of that. He’s doing a really good job of communicating with us.”

News and notes from Commanders OTAs

In the absence of Leno, the first-team line protecting Howell consisted of Cornelius Lucas at left tackle, Saahdiq Charles at left guard, Gates at center, Sam Cosmi at right guard and Andrew Wylie at right tackle. Late in practice, Howell followed up the red-zone interception by throwing a dart to running back Jonathan Williams, who scampered into the end zone. Wylie, who played in Kansas City under Bieniemy, seemed the furthest along in adopting his coach’s energy by screaming in celebration and doling out low-fives.

It was a win for the offense, a moment the pair hopes to replicate many times this season.

It’s too early to tell whether the good vibes of OTAs will translate to wins come September, whether the moves Washington made to address its three major offensive weaknesses will pan out. But it’s clear the unit is engaged and hopeful.

After practice, a reporter asked Thomas whether Bieniemy’s style had forced the team to be more focused this year.

“We know how close we’ve been in the past years,” he said. “There’s a sense of urgency.”

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