For Ralph Vacchiano
FOX Sports NFC East Writer
The Jacksonville Jaguars sent Carson Wentz seven men on the critical play of Sunday’s game, but no one was really open.
The Washington Commanders quarterback had to get rid of the ball, so Wentz threw it into the end zone, trusting that his well-covered receiver would somehow make a play.
Such trust usually takes time. It is earned by a player’s performance. It’s not often a place where a veteran quarterback becomes a rookie, as Wentz turned to Commanders wide receiver Jahan Dotson, playing in his first NFL game.
“The moment obviously wasn’t too big for him,” Wentz said, days after Dotson’s 24-yard touchdown catch was the difference in Washington’s 28-22 win over the Jaguars. “That didn’t surprise me. But that’s rare for guys in his shoes who are rookies coming in like that.”
The Chiefs have been confident they’ve found a “rare” since drafting the 5-foot-11, 182-pound Dotson with the 16th overall pick in the draft in April. His performance Sunday was just his coming out party to the rest of the NFL. It was hardly overwhelming. He had just three catches for 40 yards. But two of them were touchdowns.
And one was the game of the game.
“It was a great way to start the year”
Carson Wentz spoke with Jen Hale after throwing four touchdowns in his Washington Commanders debut, a 28-22 win over Jacksonville.
It came with a third-and-8, with the Commanders down by 2, already at the field goal but with almost two minutes to play. “Riverboat” Ron Rivera let his quarterback run it, even under heavy pressure. Dotson, coming down the left side, took a step on Jaguars cornerback Tyson Campbell, but Wentz’s pass was deflected and Dotson had to hold. Campbell hit him. He was right over Dotson in the end zone when the ball dropped from the sky.
However, Dotson somehow kept his cool, reached and made an outstanding and difficult catch.
“I don’t think it was a very good throw,” Wentz said after the game. “I just said, ‘Give this kid a chance.’ I’ve seen him do that in OTAs and I’ve seen him do it all training camp.
“I’m glad the world is seeing what he can do now too.”
What Dotson can do, Rivera believes, is what Desean Jackson has done for so many teams throughout his career, and what Steve Smith once did for Rivera’s teams in Carolina: be a quick, explosive receiver all over the field he just has a knack for making plays. It doesn’t matter if it’s small. Jackson and Smith, two players Rivera compared to Dotson on draft day, were smaller.
Also, his game is great.
“That’s what we saw (when we drafted him),” Rivera said. “That’s the young man we feel really good about. That’s why we did what we did. We’re very fortunate to have a young man with that kind of ability.”
“The way he made that play, I think, is often overlooked how he made it,” Wentz added. “(He) slowed down, got his hands out. Amazing game from the rookie. It’s impressive.”
The difficulty of the work has only added to the moment. There were a number of points along the way where the play could have broken down and no one would have thought it was Dotson’s fault. But his eyes never seemed to be off the ball. His concentration never seemed to break. He adapted to what was going on around him and found a way to do the work anyway.
It was the kind of play that even a seasoned veteran might struggle to make. Wentz, now in his seventh NFL season, understood it’s not a play most rookies could pull off, especially late in such a close game.
“I would say it’s very rare,” Wentz said. “It’s something that I and other people here might take for granted just because of what he’s done since he got here. But I’ve been playing for a while, and I can tell you, that’s rare. I can tell you how has he responded. how the moment wasn’t too big for him. shoot, the online game makes a huge play like this?”
Jahan Dotson lets loose
Check out this Penn State highlight from Commanders wide receiver Jahan Dotson.
When the 22-year-old Dotson was coming out of Penn State, scouts considered him explosive and athletic, and he had a highlight reel full of spectacular catches. There were concerns about his size, and he struggled at times to get separation in the top corners, keeping him generally ranked in the second tier of a deep receiver class. But everyone knew he could make big plays.
Still, some scouts also considered him one of the most pro-ready receivers in the draft. He was a rare receiver who spent four years in college. And he played all four, including his spectacular senior season when he caught 91 passes for 1,182 yards and 12 touchdowns and had just two drops.
Along the way, Dotson learned to play every position and thrived in all of them. He put up big numbers despite playing with a quarterback (Sean Clifford) who isn’t considered much of a pro prospect.
“My grades on him said he was polished,” said an NFC scout who watched Dotson extensively in college last season. “There wouldn’t be a huge learning curve for him. He wouldn’t be overwhelmed by being a pro. His shots weren’t as elite as some of the other guys, but he’s smart, he catches everything thrown at him , and he always looks so calm, even when things around him aren’t perfect.
“I thought he was going to be able to come in and do something. It’s one game, but obviously he did.”
He’ll get a chance to do more on a team of commanders that suddenly feel great about their offensive capabilities. The offseason trade for Wentz gave them a capable quarterback with a higher ceiling than any quarterback who has played in Washington in years.
Terry McLaurin is a true No. 1 receiver, especially now that he has a quarterback who can get him the ball. Curtis Samuel, after missing most of his first season in Washington with a groin injury, looked dangerous against the Jaguars, catching eight passes for 55 yards and a touchdown.
They also have two running backs who can catch out of the backfield in Antonio Gibson and JD McKissic. And tight end Logan Thomas caught three passes for 45 yards, even though he’s still working his way back from a knee injury.
Carson Wentz’s four TD debut
Chris Myers and Robert Smith broke up Carson Wentz’s four-TD performance in a Washington debut win.
“We feel really good about the number of players we have,” Rivera said.
With Dotson in the mix, they feel even better. If he can really contribute consistently right away, the Commanders offense could be tough to stop.
Of course, it’s far from guaranteed that Dotson will play a big role every week. He wasn’t the breakout performer against the Jaguars, and he’ll likely stick behind McLaurin and Samuel in the passing game pecking order as long as both are healthy.
But what was so important about his debut is that he showed commanders that they can rely on him if they need him. Wentz might have felt comfortable turning to him in a big spot, but Dotson had yet to prove he was up to it. And with the game on the line, with things broken, he hasn’t stopped.
His teammates and coaches saw it, and they’ll remember it the next time a big moment comes around.
And Dotson will be ready, too.
“I can make plays for this team, and that’s what I was able to do,” Dotson said. “You saw it. I made a couple of plays, but that’s not all I can do. I’m ready to make even more plays for this team.
“I’ve been prepared all my life.”
Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that spent 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. He can be found on Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.
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