The Commanders’ 2-0 start yield many unfamiliar feelings

Down 21-3, exposed and bumbling, the Washington Commanders faced the first stress test of a new era. So Ron Rivera relied on an intangible that had been beaten out of every coach this franchise has had for nearly a quarter-century: faith.

“The crazy part is we were kind of waiting for something good to happen,” he said.

And the crazier part is that something good actually did.

On Sunday, it was linebacker Jamin Davis forcing a fumble from Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson. Cody Barton recovered it for the Commanders, and it led to Washington’s first touchdown during a 35-33 comeback victory. Moving forward, it could ignite a season of resilience to signify an entire franchise attempting to make a dramatic comeback.

It’s too soon to announce the Commanders’ arrival as a contender. It has been a dozen years since they started 2-0, but that’s more sad than buzzworthy. The good vibes are undeniable, though, and these feelings transcend whether they make the playoffs this season. The energy now tilts toward expectation, not apprehension. You cannot be certain what the Josh Harris group will build, but you’re not automatically guarding against incompetence — or worse. It seems safe to wait for something good to happen.

Analysis: How the Commanders’ ‘alarming’ defense upended the Broncos’ momentum

In his 24 years of shoveling dirt on the franchise, Daniel Snyder never missed a tackle, threw an interception or made a horrible coaching decision. It just seemed like he did. As the team failed to sustain anything commendable for long, the debate centered on the impact of bad ownership. Couldn’t a great general manager amass the talent to overcome the problem? Couldn’t the right coach sustain winning? Couldn’t a franchise quarterback make a difference?

In hindsight, there was never any hope for change, just the illusion of it. The embarrassment persisted. There was no shelter from the dark cloud. The negativity of failure after failure, controversy after controversy, made it impossible to cultivate belief.

The vibe of a team doesn’t matter much until we notice extremes. Usually, there is little value in exploring something so unquantifiable. But everyone feels the void when being pulled down into it. And everyone delights when the mystical force carries a team beyond its limits.

Something is happening in Washington. Something good. It’s not about how well the Commanders are playing. In two games, they have needed second-half rallies to squeak past the Arizona Cardinals, who might end up in the running for the No. 1 overall pick, and the Broncos, who went 5-12 last season. What’s more striking is the spirit within the team and around it.

The Commanders are no longer trying to overcome themselves. They have the freedom to become themselves.

“I’m telling you, it feels different,” left tackle Charles Leno Jr. told reporters Sunday. “I just feel like this team, we’re resilient. We just find ways to win. It doesn’t matter what the score is, doesn’t matter what the situation is, it’s all about getting the W.”

It’s a far cry from the days of DeSean Jackson posting on Instagram: “You can’t do epic [stuff] with basic people.”

Or Robert Griffin III declaring in exasperation: “I just work here, man.”

For certain, Washington will have conflict and dysfunction. It exists in every football locker room. This sport demands that at least 40 players and a dozen coaches communicate properly and trust each other. Even on wonderful days, there are hordes of mistakes and hurt feelings. In the NFL, the most overanalyzed league in America, petty grievances become major stories.

But a disagreement isn’t the same as a feud that destroys a season. In Snyder’s culture, Washington had too many morale-crushing crises. But now perhaps Rivera has room to make the training-camp mistake of alluding to players having difficulty adjusting to new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy’s exacting standards without the comment creating factions within the locker room and coaching staff.

After that preseason incident, Rivera apologized quickly. Bieniemy handled it like a professional. The story lasted a couple of days, and the focus turned back to football, not the soap opera.

Hail or Fail: Commanders’ rare offensive outburst leads to even rarer 2-0 start

In the second half Sunday, you saw the potential of Bieniemy’s offense against a good Broncos defense. It is not a facsimile of the Kansas City Chiefs system that he used to operate. Sam Howell, in his first year as the starting quarterback, is showing tremendous growth. Brian Robinson Jr. is already among the best power running backs in the league. The Commanders have good wide receivers and solid depth of receiving options regardless of position. Howell and the line must continue to develop, but by season’s end, this could be a solid offense.

If so, the Commanders will be able to play the kind of complementary football they have flashed over two games. They won a defensive slugfest in Week 1. They showed the firepower to win a shootout in Week 2. Now they receive a Sunday visit from the Buffalo Bills, who have been Super Bowl contenders for several seasons. It’s a perfect time to step up the competition, and based on what I’ve seen, it would be disappointing if Washington didn’t play its best game and, at minimum, give the Bills a good challenge.

A team doesn’t learn to believe through only good times. Neither do an organization and its fan base, even if they deserve maximum joy after emerging from obnoxious ownership. Struggle is inevitable and necessary. For so long, Washington had deceiving moments. Everything looked fine until something went wrong. Then after the latest rickety plan fell apart, you realized something: Even the people who should have believed were pretending.

The Commanders don’t seem so fragile anymore. They expect more good to come from this season, and the crazy part is, we’re no longer preconditioned to consider that hope foolish.

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