Flawless, it wasn’t. Not by any stretch.
The Commanders lost to the Panthers, 23-21, on a field goal in the final seconds in their preseason opener, offering the clearest gauge yet of just how close — or just how far away — they are from competing for a playoff run and improving upon their 7-10 record last season.
More importantly, the game provided a close-up look at many players vying for roster spots and gave others a platform to shine.
Though many fans came to see Wentz, Howell, the third-string rookie quarterback, won over the crowd as he rallied the Commanders with two touchdowns in the final three minutes. He single-handedly reinvigorated a sparse crowd and helped lesser-known players leave their marks, too. Among them were receiver/returner Alex Erickson, who led the Commanders with 54 receiving yards and scored the go-ahead two-point conversion.
But it took some time for the Commanders to take control.
The defense that has won the majority of battles against its offense in training camp came out flat, allowing the Panthers offense to convert more than 65 percent of its third downs.
And the offense started with a three and out and then a fumble, courtesy of running back Antonio Gibson, who struggled with ball security last season.
But the energy picked up as the game went on. Wentz completed 10 of 13 pass attempts for 84 yards in his 21 offensive plays. He didn’t throw a pick or a touchdown, and for the most part he successfully ran the offense. The team’s first series died when tight end Armani Rogers dropped a deep pass along the right sideline. The pass was on target, but Rogers, in tight coverage, bobbled the ball as he spun around and lost control.
When the offense came back out for its second series, Wentz completed passes of two, four and six yards to Rogers to get a first down, but the drive ended on Gibson’s fumble.
The Panthers scored on their subsequent drive to take a 10-0 lead — kicker Zane Gonzalez nailed a 41-yard field goal to end Carolina’s opening series — when Rashard Higgins waltzed into the end zone.
But the Commanders bounced back in a way Rivera had hoped, methodically using 14 plays to make their way down field for their first touchdown of the new era. Gibson was benched for the series following his turnover, and rookie running back Brian Robinson Jr. took over.
To start the drive, Wentz connected with Terry McLaurin along the right sideline for a 16-yard gain. Robinson ran for 11 yards two plays later, and then, on third and four, Wentz connected with veteran back JD McKissic for a 15-yard catch-and-run to put the Commanders on the Panthers’ 9-yard line to help set up a one-yard touchdown run by Robinson. Wentz and the Commanders were 3-of-3 on third downs in that drive.
Rivera promised that all three quarterbacks would play, and Heinicke took over at the start of the next series, with roughly nine minutes remaining in the second quarter. But he struggled with accuracy and rhythm with his receivers and finished 4-of-9 for 21 yards, an interception and 12.0 passer rating.
Just as the crowd seemed to quiet, Howell entered the game with about nine minutes left in the third quarter. The fifth-round rookie, who was once projected by some analysts to be a first-round pick in the 2022 draft, put on a show.
His first pass was a completion. His longest completion was 40 yards. His best series came with about 9:44 remaining, when he went on a spree of first downs, connecting with rookie receiver Kyric McGowan for a 27-yard catch, finding Marken Michel for 17 yards, then scrambling up the middle for a 17- yard touchdown on his own. Howell finished 9-of-16 in passing with 143 yards and added 19 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns to his tally.
The Commanders’ new fight song, an alteration of the team’s previous one, blared from the loud speakers after his first score.
By his second, fans were on their feet.
But by the end, a 45-yard Panthers field goal sailed through the uprights to give Carolina the victory.