The Commanders have screwed up their head coaching search in spectacular fashion

As recently as a week ago it felt like the Commanders were destined to be the unquestioned winners of the offseason hiring cycle. They got a man widely accepted to be the best up-and-coming general manager in the NFL, and all signs pointed to them landing the hottest head coaching prospect. A new era was set to begin in Washington, full of hope and promise.

Now everything has gone to hell and we’re left wondering how the hell this happened.

The Commanders are the only team left in the NFL without a coach, with seven other teams already moving forward with position coaching hires and plans for the draft. At this point in the process the prospect pool is shallow, and Washington will be forced to settle for the leftovers — pretending whoever they hire is really who they wanted all along. It’s a stunning turn in fortune that functionally makes no sense.

This is a time when the Washington job is one of the most attractive in the NFL. The team has a top-three draft pick to sculpt the future, further draft assets to round out the roster, a boat load of salary cap space, and owners/fans who are receptive to a slow build, so long as there’s incremental improvement. In all comes back to one critical error, and something that never should have happened in the first place.

The news that Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson was returning to Detroit, rather than accept a head coaching job was an absolute stunner — because it was widely assumed he would be announced as the next leader of the Commanders. Washington was being so patient with their coaching search after hiring GM Adam Peters that it felt like the team had to have a handshake agreement in place with Johnson for after the playoffs. Obviously that wasn’t the case.

We can now look back on the entire hiring cycle and realize that the Commanders played themselves. Numerous teams conducted phone interviews with Johnson, only to quickly move in another direction and hire head coaches — most notably the Carolina Panthers, who had been smitten with Johnson in back-to-back years, but hired Dave Canales, rather than wait for the Lions’ season to wrap up. Something happened in their phone interview with Johnson that caused them to give up their pursuit, but Washington obviously didn’t get the same memo.

This tracks with what sources inside the league have been saying for much of the year when it comes to Johnson, speculating that he might not actually want a head coaching gig. While teams were banging on his door seeing if he’d take over their organizations he was perfectly happy in Detroit, being the No. 2 to Dan Campbell, and trying to lead the beleaguered Lions to greatness.

Discussion of Johnson not wanting to be a head coach wasn’t an overnight realization, this talk had been circulating for months before the regular season ended. So when it comes to the Commanders we have to believe one of three things happened during this process:

  1. Johnson agreed to go to Washington, but had a change of heart
  2. The team chose to ignore all the signs that he wasn’t going to leave Detroit
  3. They had no idea what Johnson was going to do, and held out hope anyway

It’s highly unlikely that Johnson reached a tentative agreement with the Commanders and backed out of it. He has a reputation around the league for being a straight shooter, and not stringing teams along. In 2022 he refused to even interview with teams, quickly informing them that he was going to stay. This leaves us with two scenarios, both of which are problems of Washington’s own making.

There is no doubt Johnson would have been the perfect coach for the Commanders. He’s thrived in Detroit taking a collection of talented, but disparate pieces and turning them into an offensive juggernaut. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft means that Washington is guaranteed to have either Caleb Williams or Drake Maye on the board to be their future quarterback, with Maye in particular being a hand-meet-glove fit for Johnson’s offensive tendencies.

Still, just because something would have been perfect doesn’t mean it should be forced, and it’s growing increasingly apparent that the Commanders felt they could convince Johnson to leave Detroit — a mission they failed at.

This would be disappointing in its own right, but devastating considering that there’s essentially nobody left for them to hire on the offensive side of the ball. The Tennessee Titans hired Brian Callahan, the aforementioned Panthers landed Canales, and Bobby Slowik announced he was returning to the Texans. The last best chance for an offensive-minded head coach is Todd Monken of the Baltimore Ravens, a decidedly mid-tier candidate who could be good, but has a more old-school approach to offense at a time where new thinking is dominating.

If the Commanders decide to hire a defensive coach they have a few more options in Mike Vrabel, Aaron Glenn or Steve Wilks (when the season is over) — but these are all fairly suspect hires considering the gravity of where the team is right now. This organization needed someone with a clear vision, particularly at quarterback, and a supporting staff to build towards that vision. They could still get a good coach, but they won’t come in with the mandate that a young, coveted, offensive coach would have.

Make no mistake: Hiring Adam Peters from the 49ers was still a stroke of brilliance. He’s absolutely the right general manager to lead an organization into the future — but Peters might have made his first major mistake less than a month into his tenure by not locking up a coach when he had the chance, instead holding out for Johnson and praying he’d come to Washington.

Whatever happens next will be mediocre. We won’t see the dawning of an exciting new era as many hoped, and instead expectation will be measured. It didn’t have to be like this, but it’s the situation the team now finds itself in, because they really blew it.

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