Commanders offensive line overhaul didn’t include just players. Will coaching changes make impact?
ASHBURN — This offseason, the Washington Commanders have made significant changes along the offensive line. The team signed veterans Nick Gates and Andrew Wylie to start at center and right tackle, respectively. Washington cut longtime center Chase Roullier, and plans to let go of veteran Andrew Norwell (elbow) once healthy. At left guard, there’s an open competition between Saahdiq Charles and Chris Paul.
But the overhaul wasn’t just at the roster level.
For the trenches, even Washington’s coaching staff now looks different heading into 2023. Gone is John Matsko, a distinguished offensive line coach who had worked with Ron Rivera for a dozen years. In his place is Travelle Wharton, Matsko’s assistant who was promoted to the top job. Juan Castillo, meanwhile, was shifted over from tight ends coach to work with the offensive line as Washington’s new run-game coordinator — which puts Castillo back at a spot he’s coached for years.
The changes were made upon offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy’s arrival. Along with a scheme change, the goal is to ultimately get the most out of a group whose play dramatically declined a year ago.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity,” Wharton said. “For myself, it’s going out there and really letting the guys know that we’re going to work today. I want to let you know that we’re going to work. Because you’re going to benefit from it.”
The timing of Matsko’s departure —rather, his firing — was surprising. The 72-year-old was let go just after the beginning of free agency in March. But Matsko had not only traveled to the scouting combine with the Commanders a month earlier — he also showed up to Bieniemy’s introductory press conference.
And yet, peculiar timing has worked out for the Commanders in the past. A year ago, Rivera made an unexpected decision to fire defensive line coach Sam Mills in training camp and replace him with assistant Jeff Zgonina. That change, however, helped reenergize a unit that had been coming off a disappointing 2021. Last season, Washington’s defensive line bounced back as the team finished with 43 sacks.
Rivera recently sidestepped a question about whether he expected Wharton’s promotion to have a similar impact on the offensive line. Instead, the coach focused on the youth at the position — saying that the Commanders have three offensive linemen who they’re counting on to “take another step.” Those three include Charles, Paul and Sam Cosmi — a 2021 second-rounder who has been moved from tackle to guard.
Cosmi, who briefly played guard last season, moved inside full-time after the Commanders signed Wylie to a three-year, $24 million contract in the offseason.
“You just want your best five to play and so you are gonna put those guys in the best situations that’s gonna give us the best opportunity,” Bieniemy said when asked about Cosmi moving to guard. “Obviously, Wylie has played the right tackle position now for a number of years. He’s also played guard. … At this particular time and talking with our o-line coach, this is the best situation for all of them.”
Rivera, meanwhile, is also banking on better health from the unit. Over the last two years, the Commanders have been hit hard by injuries along the line — particularly at center, where Roullier and backup Tyler Larsen suffered season-ending injuries in consecutive seasons.
Though Gates, Washington’s new starting center, suffered a gruesome broken leg in 2021, he played in the Giants’ final 12 games (including playoffs) once activated from the injury last season. Wylie, too, played in every game in 2022 and has missed only 11 games in his five-year career.
Last year, Washington’s changes up front didn’t work out as planned. Norwell and Trai Turner, two interior linemen signed last offseason, failed to pan out as serviceable replacements for All-Pro guard Brandon Scherff and Ereck Flowers — the former of whom left to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars and the latter of whom was cut for salary cap purposes. The Commanders went from having a unit that ranked as the sixth-best line in 2021 to a group that finished 20th in 2022, according to Pro Football Focus.
Was the regression a one-year blip? Or did the Commanders miss on their evaluations again? The answers won’t come until the season starts. But before then, the Commanders have to adapt to the changes that have already been made.
“From the beginning, the attitude of guys coming in has been we’ve got to get better, we’ve got to work,” Wharton said. “And that helps out when you think about where we want to go. We’ve got to be able to get better. We have to improve.”