ASHBURN, Va. — Nathaniel Hackett, right?
Whether or not the Commanders go all Global Thermonuclear War and make a bid for Aaron Rodgers this winter, they need to go after his former offensive coordinator in Green Bay, fired by Denver after one dreadful season as the Broncos’ head coach. Any guy who gets this kind of love from the mercurial A.A. Ron needs to be targeted, pronto.
Here is @AaronRodgers12’s full answer — on Nov. 11, 2020 — about Nathaniel Hackett when asked (in a typically long-winded way 😉) about then-#Packers offensive coordinator and now the new head coach of the Denver @Broncos.
The smirk at the end … pic.twitter.com/FJu5HlDeNn
— Jason Wilde (@jasonjwilde) January 28, 2022
Hackett: Wait, what’s the deal with the owner in D.C.? And who’s the starting quarterback next year?
Commanders: Hold, please.
Tuesday’s firing of Scott Turner was no surprise. The die was cast well before this past weekend, when unnamed offensive players vented about Turner’s system to the Post. Washington’s inability to mesh its receivers’ talents to the quarterbacks in 2022, and its futility in the red zone, were both season-long issues that happened on Turner’s watch — as was the often-odd play calling at inopportune moments for a team that was life-and-death the last six weeks.
Not utilizing Brian Robinson more against the Giants; constantly running the ball out of shotgun in short-yardage situations; not getting the ball to Terry McLaurin early and often — as almost every team in the league does in force-feeding its best receiver — using your 6-foot-1, 190-pound quarterback on a fourth-and-inches sneak against San Francisco instead of your 6-5, 235-pound one; a toss to little-used Jonathan Williams against Cleveland on fourth-and-1 a week later … just odd choices, when better ones were available. Ron Rivera gives his coordinators a lot of leeway, but even he seemed mystified sometimes by what his offense was doing.
Commanders fire offensive coordinator Scott Turner
The offensive spark that Turner created against Jacksonville for the season opener, for which he had months to prepare, rarely materialized afterward, when he had only a few days to get ready for the next opponent. Was he hamstrung by his quarterbacks’ limitations? Of course. But that’s the challenge around here until Rivera and the front office fix that seemingly intractable problem.
But getting rid of Turner doesn’t fix the offense. For Rivera to survive Year 4, he has to get uncomfortable.
For starters, Rivera has to be secure enough to hire someone as offensive coordinator who is good enough to potentially succeed him as head coach. And that should preclude him, with all due respect, from going to his default: another former Carolina guy.
Commanders offensive coordinator candidates: 12 options to replace Scott Turner
Maybe the offensive coordinator won’t be Nathaniel Hackett, the son of longtime NFL offensive guru Paul Hackett, or former Colts head coach Frank Reich, who helped lead the Eagles to their Super Bowl title as the team’s OC, or Kliff Kingsbury, fired Tuesday by the Cardinals. Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien wasn’t a great NFL head coach, but he was a good OC in New England. If Tom Brady leaves Tampa Bay, would Buccaneers OC Byron Leftwich, the former H.D. Woodson Warrior, want to come home?
We don’t know what the Commanders’ budget is for the job, given Dan Snyder’s status. But it has to be someone with gravitas, with an innovative native, who can shake off the torpor of the offense the last three years and fully unleash what McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel — and Robinson, and Antonio Gibson and the athletic talent throughout the tight end room — can do.
That would also involve solving quarterback, whether it’s coaching up Sam Howell or looking elsewhere, and investing high picks and/or free-agent dollars in the offensive line. Hackett, et al., aren’t going to resurface for a team that doesn’t have those spots nailed down.
Keep this in mind with any OC speculation: Ron Rivera’s future in Washington is unclear beyond this season. A new owner, should that occur, may want his own guys or different voices. That’s a tough scenario to enter for a hot coordinator candidate or someone with deep options.
— Ben Standig (@BenStandig) January 11, 2023
Which is what made one part of Rivera’s news conference with general manager Martin Mayhew on Tuesday morning — which took place before news of Turner’s dismissal got out — confusing.
I get they couldn’t come out and say, “We’re cutting Carson Wentz,” or, “Howell’s our starter next season.” The season ended less than three days ago. The evaluation of the roster has just begun. Rivera hasn’t met with the Snyders yet (supposedly, that comes next Monday) to discuss 2023. Howell’s played exactly one NFL game. The full fine-tooth combing of college QB prospects hasn’t yet begun; the Senior Bowl isn’t until Feb. 4; quarterback can’t be fixed in January.
And, they obviously knew they were going to fire Turner, but couldn’t say. Understood.
Yet Rivera and Mayhew made it clear that the team’s uncertainty at QB didn’t direct and isn’t directing their desire to be a run-first team. That is their overarching philosophy.
“I think it’s a philosophical belief. I mean for me it is,” Rivera said. “I’ve been involved with that. … You’ve got to be able to help your defense as well. If you look at a lot of the (playoff teams), most of ’em rush for well over 1,000 (yards) on offense. And I think they control the tempo of the game, and I think that’s what we need to do to win football games. We need to control that tempo of the game. I do believe in a two-back system. I’ve had success with that and I believe we had some pretty good success with it.”
“I think we’re all products of our experience in this league,” he said. “And in my experience here, the most success that I had was playing here, and we were run-first football team and we were (a) running-back-by-committee football team, you know? That’s what I’ve had success with. When we had success in Detroit in 2014, we had a run-first orientation. I know Coach has had a pretty good running back when you played, too, in Chicago.
“So I think we’re products of that and what we’ve experienced, and that’s where I’ve had the most success. And I know that late in the year, that becomes really important. And when you can’t run the football late in the year, it makes it very, very difficult to advance, make the playoffs or have success in the playoffs.”
No one’s denigrating the late, great Walter Payton, Rivera’s Bears teammate, when you point out that Payton retired in … 1987. And the game has changed quite a bit since then. Even here, where the Riggo Drill and the offensive line that performed it in front of the Hall of Fame back are both revered, people understand that more teams throw the football first these days.
Commanders’ collapse, leading to another lost season, shows major changes are needed
Here’s Washington’s ranking in pass attempts — which are typically inflated on losing teams (because when you’re trailing, you throw more) — over the last 10 years, including the just-concluded season: 2oth, 21st, ninth, 28th, 26th, 18th, seventh, 20th, 18th, ninth.
The last 10 teams that have won Super Bowls had the following starting quarterbacks: Matthew Stafford, Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Brady, Nick Foles (!), Brady, Peyton Manning, uh … Brady, Russell Wilson and Joe Flacco. Very few game managers in that group. Only two of the last 10 title-winners finished in the bottom half of the league in pass attempts in their championship seasons.
That didn’t preclude those teams from effectively running the ball. The Patriots ran it a lot, actually — in some championship seasons, more than they threw. But, they also had Tom Brady behind center. It remains very, very difficult to win NFL games regularly when your offense can’t score more than 17 points a week. At the least, it reduces your margin for error to almost zero, an impossible standard over 17 games. And you certainly can’t run as much as Rivera and Mayhew want — a 2-1 ratio — behind guys signed off the street.
Rivera started the season by saying it would be fair to judge him on the Commanders’ record. He said Tuesday that that couldn’t be the sole arbiter of success or failure this season, that Robinson being shot and missing a month was an extraordinary circumstance. That’s true, but only to a point — of course, players don’t often suffer such violence, but they surely get injured, every week, with many being out of action much longer than Robinson was. Rivera also noted the many young players who had to contribute faster than the team hoped they’d need to.
“Am I disappointed we didn’t get into the playoffs? Darn right I am,” he said. “We had an opportunity to control our own destiny, and we didn’t do the things that we needed to at the right time. But there were some things that we can’t control. So, the best thing we can do is control what we can, and that’s the growth and development of our
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio did impressive work this season doing just that for Washington’s young defensive players. Rivera needs to help achieve the same on the other side of the locker room by not just improving its depth chart, but hiring an innovative, creative mind to see what can’t be seen with the ordinary offensive eye: Someone who’ll make the Commanders’ offense a weapon, not a delaying tactic.
(Photo: Rey Del Rio / Getty Images)