Commanders Routed by Cowboys on Thanksgiving and Changes could be Coming

John McDonnell/The Washington Post
A 45-10 loss Thursday puts a sharpening focus on Coach Ron Rivera’s future with the Commanders.

ARLINGTON, Tex. – Dak Prescott ate a turkey leg on the sideline early Thursday evening as the Washington Commanders stood in silence with six minutes left of a blowout loss to their archrival.

Happy Thanksgiving, Washington.

In a game the Commanders sorely needed to at least keep competitive, they were instead embarrassed, 45-10, by the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium to put everyone’s job at stake over the next 24 hours.

The defense was a bumbling mess, giving up 431 yards and five touchdowns while hitting Prescott only twice. The offense had its moments early but couldn’t execute down the stretch, going 0 for 3 on fourth downs and failing to answer any of Dallas’s three fourth-quarter touchdowns.

The result was a third consecutive loss that left Coach Ron Rivera’s team at 4-8. The question now is not whether wholesale changes will be made in Washington, but how soon?

“I’ve told you before, I’m not worried about it,” Rivera said his job security. “I’m going to just do my job and see how things go. That’s the only thing I can do.”

Washington’s defensive troubles started early and continued throughout, save for a brief spell in the third quarter.

The Cowboys committed back-to-back penalties on their second drive, setting them back to second and 25. Yet, they still converted against Washington’s porous defense. Prescott threw an 18-yard completion to wide receiver Jalen Tolbert, then Tony Pollard broke a 14-yard run. Dallas capped its 90-yard drive with a 15-yard touchdown from Rico Dowdle, who took a short pass and was given a wide open lane to the end zone after Zack Martin laid a heavy block on linebacker Khaleke Hudson.

Cowboys Coach Mike McCarthy’s game plan clearly intended to pick on Washington’s young defensive backs, who have shown to be game-changers – often for the worse. They have length and speed but have allowed numerous explosive plays in coverage and committed costly penalties. Cornerback Benjamin St-Juste, who was targeted early and often Thursday, picked up his sixth penalty for illegal contact when he was flagged in the first quarter.

That was enough for McCarthy to keep sending the ball his way.

Midway through the second quarter, with St-Juste in press coverage against Brandin Cooks, Prescott went deep and found an open Cooks, who beat both St-Juste and safety Percy Butler to waltz into the end zone.

“At the end of the day, in the NFL you have to do your job,” said defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, who recorded one of the team’s two quarterback hits on Prescott. “As players, we’re not getting the job done, and as coaches, we’re not getting the job done. I don’t think anyone’s getting the job done. So, for me, I’m looking at myself – what can I do to be better? What can I do to help these guys win? Everyone has to do that for themselves.”

Washington’s offense did little to save the defense, though it was slightly better in the first half.

Howell, who was coming off a three-interception outing against the Giants last week, orchestrated an efficient response to lead a 75-yard drive in the second quarter. Washington collected seven first downs along the way (two courtesy of penalties), with passes to tight end Logan Thomas and wide receivers Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel, who landed a yard shy of the end zone.

Howell marched it in to narrow Dallas’s lead to 14-10.

John McDonnell/The Washington Post
Commanders quarterback Sam Howell lands on the turf as the Cowboys celebrate a fourth-quarter sack in a 45-10 thumping of Washington at AT&T Stadium.

In the first half, Washington’s offense converted four of seven third-down attempts, scored in its lone trip to the red zone and totaled 205 net yards on 38 plays. The group gave the team a chance to be successful. But they couldn’t sustain their play in the second half, and the defense’s showing removed any hope of a comeback.

Prescott, who entered the game with the fourth-highest passer rating in the league, ensured Washington wouldn’t keep any momentum after its long drive. On Dallas’s ensuring possession, he picked up chunk plays to Brooks (24 yards) and Tolbert (31 yards) before handing it off to Pollard for a seven-yard touchdown.

Washington’s defense allowed an average of 10.5 yards per play to the Cowboys in the opening two quarters.

Although the defense settled down for a bit in the third quarter, the offense lost its way.

The Commanders made it to Dallas’s 39-yard line, where Howell took a deep shot to McLaurin on a third and one. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore deftly punched it away, setting up a fourth down that went awry.

Washington had to go for it – and did – but the execution was disastrous. Running back Brian Robinson Jr. took the handoff, then collided with Dotson, who motioned across the line after the snap, in the backfield. On the left side, defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa turned Commanders tackle Charles Leno Jr. into a turnstile, spinning him around to drop Robinson for a loss of two yards.

“I feel like that was kind of a turning point,” McLaurin said. “Because before then, the defense got two stops and we were moving the ball well.”

Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy lit up with rage, tossing his tablet and call sheet in frustration on the sideline.

“Those things just can’t happen,” Howell said. “From a timing standpoint, obviously it was a short week. But we can’t make any excuses. Those things can’t happen in a football game. We struggled at times in the short yardage area in the game. That really hurt us. . . . We just struggled to finish drives. We struggled to score points. When you struggle to that against a good football team, it’s hard.”

The deficit was still a manageable 23-10 early in the fourth quarter when another fourth-down miscue signaled the beginning of the end.

On fourth and one, Howell lined up in shotgun and Dallas stacked the box. The Cowboys brought pressure and quickly sacked Howell. The call was perplexing: Lining up in shotgun, the Commanders essentially showed the defense all it had to cover, instead of disguising a second option for Howell.

Three plays later, Prescott hit CeeDee Lamb for a 15-yard strike and then again for the two-point conversion. Four minutes after that, Prescott found KaVontae Turpin for a 34-yard touchdown pass to make it 38-10.

The icing: Cornerback DaRon Bland picked off Howell with 4:50 remaining and ran it back 63 yards for a touchdown to put Washington on the wrong side of history. It was Bland’s fifth pick-six, the most ever in a single season.

Commanders owner Josh Harris has said his first year would be mostly for observing and analyzing. His $6.05 billion purchase of the team was completed just before the start of training camp, and he said he wanted to give the coaching staff a full season to make his own evaluations. The season has five games remaining, but this result could not have helped Rivera’s case to stay.

Afterward, Rivera declined to say whether he would make any staff changes.

“I’m not going to get into that stuff,” he said repeatedly.

Washington’s locker room was silent as players absorbed their reality and the possibility of what could come. Many said they couldn’t let themselves focus on the what-ifs with the staff.

“We can’t focus on none of that stuff,” Robinson said. “We go to work every week. Guys come in locked in for one mission, and that’s to get a win on Sunday. We’re not sitting around worried about what happens in the office or coaching changes. That’s probably one of the biggest distractions that we don’t need. We’re already going through what we’re going through. It’s a distraction to focus on that. We need to focus on what’s going to make us a better team and continue to focus on that.”

Others flipped the speculation of possible coaching changes back on what the players can control.

“Just because you make changes here and there doesn’t necessarily impact the result all the time,” McLaurin said. “I’m not in those type of discussions. But I think even my rookie year when we had some change, we still had ups and downs, you know what I mean? I just think it’s a matter of the players still having respect and pride. . . . You can’t come in here with your head hanging down and not go hard and not give effort. I just don’t think that’s a reflection of the person and player you want to be.”