LANDOVER, Md. — So, you’d like Ron Rivera’s job, would you?
(This is not me saying, “Ron Rivera should be fired.” Please note the distinction.)
What I mean is, talk radio and Commanders Twitter is always filled to the brim with sage advice — after the fact, always — about what the coach should have done, who he should have played, what plays should have been called, and on and on. Because the job is so, so easy to do, apparently.
So what do you, new coach, do at quarterback — the most important position in pro sports — with your playoff chances suddenly cut by two-thirds after Sunday’s 20-12 loss to the Giants, and a short week coming, culminating with a road game 3,000 miles away in six days against the hottest team in the league (with the nastiest defense), the 49ers?
You either stay with Taylor Heinicke, who put the ball on the ground twice at the worst possible time Sunday — or go back to Carson Wentz, who hasn’t played in eight weeks and didn’t look all that good when he was on the field. It’s not an especially good choice, but you have to make it.
This isn’t idle chitchat. Washington’s offense is on the verge of blowing an exceptionally good chance at making the postseason, and the position that’s holding the unit back, more often than not, is behind center. A QB shakeup is, if not necessary, something that has to be strongly considered.
Yes, I know I said two weeks ago that Washington couldn’t possibly replace Heinicke, not after he’d gone 5-1-1 as a starter in place of the injured Wentz. In the NFL, two weeks is like dog years. Everything changes in this league, in an instant. (Didn’t you watch “Draft Day?”)
The defense has been exceptional for a good long while now. It bent some, to be sure, on Sunday against Giants quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Saquon Barkley. But the bottom line is it gave up 13 points Sunday night, which should have been more than enough to win, especially at home.
Giants hold on to defeat Commanders on SNF
Conversely, the Commanders’ offense gave up seven points, on a second-quarter strip-sack-fumble caused by the seemingly unblockable Giants rookie defensive end and first-rounder Kaylon Thibodeaux, who again blindsided Heinicke on the goal line, as he did two weeks ago in the 20-20 tie with the Giants. A fortnight ago, Heinicke somehow held onto the ball. This time, though, Heinicke coughed it up, which Thibodeaux recovered at the Commanders’ 1 for a walk-in score.
Touchdown.@kayvont is ridiculous ?
?: #NYGvsWAS on NBC
?: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/BooZSZJZF4 pic.twitter.com/vgTrvJ4gnI
— NFL (@NFL) December 19, 2022
(Again, not to beat a dead horse, but this is why, when you see the damage a young defensive lion like Thibodeaux does, I remain a little perplexed about exactly why Chase Young isn’t back on the field yet for Washington. If he’s healthy enough to be on the active roster, he’s healthy enough to play, right? And if he isn’t healthy enough to be on the active roster, why is he on the active roster?)
Worse, the Commanders scored zero points in two red zone trips in a one-score game in the last six minutes.
The first drive self-detonated when Heinicke, again, was sacked. But this wasn’t a blindside hit; it was a fairly boilerplate hit (if a 300-pound man hitting you can be called “boilerplate”) by the Giants’ Dexter Lawrence. But, Heinicke fumbled, again. And New York recovered, again.
“We can’t do that,” Rivera said afterward. “We had our opportunities. … We missed opportunities. We can’t do that. We talked about that when we were off last week, that the red zone was something we’ve gotta get better at. And we didn’t do that. If we had, that last series doesn’t matter.”
This isn’t a one-week problem. Washington’s offense has struggled inside the opponents’ 20 all season. That included Wentz not being able to get the ball in against Tennessee in Week 5, when the Commanders, down 21-17, had first-and-goal at Tennessee’s 2-yard-line with 19 seconds left before Wentz threw a game-asphyxiating interception on the goal line. So this isn’t singling out Heinicke.
Nor is it Heinicke’s fault that line judge Carl Johnson called Terry McLaurin for being in illegal formation — basically, not even with the center along the line of scrimmage — before Brian Robinson’s 1-yard touchdown run with 1:08 left, which would have made the score 20-18, with Washington in position to attempt a two-point conversation to tie the game. McLaurin insisted afterward that he had twice checked with Johnson before the snap to make sure he was lined up properly, and got a verbal OK from him before the snap.
Pool report with referee John Hussey. On the McLaurin penalty. https://t.co/1OHxziT2bj pic.twitter.com/OwTtpgfwt4
— Ben Standig (@BenStandig) December 19, 2022
Referee John Hussey told a pool reporter afterward that McLaurin needed “to break the belt line, the waist of the center, and he was not breaking the waistline of the center. That’s why the penalty was called, because he was not in a legal formation.” NBC rules analyst Terry McAulay called the flag “ticky-tack” and said he would not have penalized McLaurin.
Nor is it Heinicke’s fault that the officials deemed that this wasn’t pass interference on Giants cornerback Darnay Holmes against Curtis Samuel on fourth-and-goal. (Goodness. McAulay had even more to say about this non-call.)
Was this pass interference? ? pic.twitter.com/hUL5WIKZPV
— Sunday Night Football on NBC (@SNFonNBC) December 19, 2022
But, the fumbles are on Heinicke — and, especially, the second one.
“Maybe I could have hit Logan (Thomas) right there, on that one,” Heinicke said. “I tried to make something happen with my feet. I got hit. I’ve just got to protect the ball better. That’s points that we left on the board, and if you think about it, at the end of the game, it would have been, what, 20-15? A touchdown wins the game.”
The Commanders have made all the switches and substitutions they possibly can along the injury-ravaged offensive line. It is far from a great unit, but it is what it is at this point. Everyone agrees that Washington’s skill players are more than good enough to put points on the board. And yet, the Commanders don’t, week after week.
We all agree that Heinicke’s toughness and ability to move the pocket, and the obvious regard in which his teammates hold him, are major pluses on his ledger. He made what I thought was his best throw this season Sunday — a 19-yard bullet to Jahan Dotson in the third quarter for the Commanders’ only touchdown. On that play, Heinicke planted his back foot and zipped the pass into a tight window, getting the ball on Dotson before the Giants’ safety could get over to contest the throw.
? #NYGvsWAS NBC pic.twitter.com/TiLFIK4y6z
— Washington Commanders (@Commanders) December 19, 2022
But, we haven’t seen nearly enough of that kind of pass from him in the red zone.
And, there’s no getting around this: There’s a reason Washington traded multiple picks to Indy last offseason for Wentz, and are spending $28 million on him this season. Rivera determined that he needed a quarterback with a bigger arm, precisely for times like this in a season — when the other team knows what you’re going to do, and you do it successfully anyway — because your quarterback can make those passes. It’s hard to be accurate in the red zone. The field is compressed; balls can get tipped; defensive backs can drive on throws, knowing where they’re going to go.
Wentz was able to make big plays in the first two weeks of the season. He did not in the next four. He, and Washington’s offense, were awful. But he’s recovered from the broken ring finger on his throwing hand. He was Heinicke’s backup Sunday, ahead of rookie Sam Howell.
Rivera said he didn’t think about replacing Heinicke at halftime. But in the days to come, he has to give it some serious thought. It’s not an easy decision — Wentz played like a statue during his greatest struggles, and that is not the formula for success against Nick Bosa and the 49ers’ get-after-it defensive front, which eats immobile quarterbacks alive. There is also the question of whether Wentz can engender the kind of love from his teammates that Heinicke, obviously, has.
But we’re past the time for niceties. Sunday’s inability to finish drives with touchdowns has put Washington’s season, after eight weeks of fighting and battling, back on the brink. And Rivera will have to decide if what he saw in Wentz during all of that film work during the offseason is what he thinks is still in his former starting quarterback. If so, then there’s really no choice at all, is there?
(Photo of Carson Wentz: Todd Olszewski / Getty Images)