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Commanders QB choice: Why Ron Rivera could pick Carson Wentz over Taylor Heinicke


Is good enough good enough?

That’s the question Ron Rivera weighs with a playoff berth at stake. The debate is specific to whom the Washington Commanders start in their next game at quarterback: Taylor Heinicke or Carson Wentz? The choice affects far more than these three central figures in the 2022 campaign — and comes with no definitive conclusion.

Rivera’s pending decision is significant since a clear path to the playoffs exists. With a 7-7-1 record, Washington holds the NFC’s seventh seed as the third and final wild card entrant with two weeks remaining. Win its last two regular-season games, home tilts against the Browns and Cowboys, and the Commanders keep playing. Even a single victory might be enough.

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Some non-plussed fans and analysts might find any spirited QB debate amusing and perhaps irrelevant. Wentz and Heinicke share little in common physically and with how they execute the offense. The commonality is both come with notable flaws and take their team on unwanted roller coaster rides.

There are also distinct advantages each possesses. Wentz is a 6-foot-5 pocket passer with a strong arm Washington acquired from Indianapolis in March. Heinicke, the undersized mobile underdog, has years of experience in offensive coordinator Scott Turner’s system. Since medical science is not advanced enough to combine their strengths into one player, Rivera must choose between the polarizing passers.

“It is about the whole picture,” Rivera said of the pending decision following Saturday’s 37-20 loss at San Francisco, in which both quarterbacks played.

Though competitive through halftime, Washington’s mistakes mounted before the Commanders fell to 0-2-1 in their last three games after previously winning six of seven. Heinicke threw two touchdown passes but committed two costly second-half turnovers. Wentz, in relief, tossed his first touchdown since October 9.

“We will go and talk about all these different things,” Rivera continued. “And there’s a lot that will go into that. It’s not going to be a knee-jerk. It’s going to be something that I really do believe at the end of the day gives us the best chance to win football games and get into the playoffs and see what happens.”

Expect the result to land on Wentz. Rivera effectively made this exact decision in March. Heinicke remained on the roster after starting 15 games in 2021, leading Washington to a respectable 7-8 record in those games despite a multitude of injuries and organizational drama, but the man in charge wanted more.

“I like (Wentz) a lot. I believe he’s our guy, and we’re building around him,” Rivera said in March. “For all intents and purposes, (we plan to) have this guy here for the next several years.”

He took on Wentz’s risky reputation after loud exits in Philadelphia and Indianapolis the previous two years by dealing two third-round selections to Indianapolis for Wentz and his $22 million guaranteed salary in 2022, plus two additional non-guaranteed contract years.

“You have questions,” a defiant Rivera said following the trade. “I don’t.”

Criticism didn’t stop with the 1-4 start as Wentz lived up to his reputation for precise throws and maddening decisions. When Heinicke entered in Week 7 after Wentz’s finger injury required surgery and the wins began piling up, the trade skeptics pounced. Now that the surge has slowed, is it good enough to re-start Wentz and his big arm given that’s why Washington acquired him in the first place?

Seeing as points matter, yes. We can get lost in analytics and other variables, helpful with context as they might be. Ultimately, it comes down to who scores more.

Washington’s 19.0 points per game rank 24th on the season. The Commanders are 5-2-1 when scoring 19 or more points and 2-5 when scoring fewer. That swing isn’t about the offense solely, but about the offense not picking up the defense.

Washington’s defense (and running back Brian Robinson) set the tone for the mid-season turnaround more than the QB change. The defense ranks 12th at 20.9 points allowed per game. But in those eight games against teams tracking for the playoffs, the average spikes to 23.6 points. That would rank 24th if extrapolated over 15 games. Those opponents scored more than 19 each time, with the 49ers’ 37 points setting a season worst.

The offense’s scoring average changes little when filtered against foes currently in the playoff picture (18.4) and those on the outside (19.7). Seeing as the defense loses some stinginess against likely playoff foes, the offense’s current output and red-zone efficiency aren’t good enough.

Now that the “team rallies behind Heinicke” narrative lost steam over the past three games — can’t use the good record as a pro-Heinicke argument and then ignore the dip — Wentz makes the most sense.

“Heinicke’s done a nice job here down the stretch. There’s no doubt about that,” NBC Sports NFL analyst Chris Simms told The Athletic ahead of the 49ers game. “I think he was a benefactor of the team getting straightened out. It’s where I feel bad for Carson Wentz.”

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Robinson, Washington’s leading rusher (710 yards), missed Wentz’s first four starts while recovering from two gunshot wounds. Wide receiver Jahan Dotson, the Commanders’ first-round pick and receiving touchdown leader (7), sat out starts Nos. 5 and 6 with a hamstring injury. The defense turned into a top-10 unit as the season progressed.

“I think there were team issues that went in the right direction as Heinicke entered as the quarterback,” Simms continued. “…The recent stretch looks good regarding wins and losses, but I think there’s more to be had with the actual talent on the football field.”

There’s more to the whole picture Rivera intends to study. Pairing Wentz’s penchant for holding onto the ball in the pocket with a leaky offensive line created pass protection and ball security nightmares. Heinicke’s legs help, but Washington allowed 10 sacks and 51 QB pressures in its past three games.

Those protection numbers are slightly better than during Wentz’s nadir. Are they good enough to keep the more accurate home run thrower on the sideline? Or does Heinicke’s willingness to put the ball up for grabs so Terry McLaurin and other receivers can use their playmaking skills trump Wentz looking for those big windows?

Washington’s snap counts revealed some interesting usage against San Francisco, particularly at running back, linebacker and in the secondary. Is it good enough to tinker with personnel and game-planning elsewhere but not at the most critical position?

Rivera is the head coach with the final say. Even if the other players hinted at wanting to keep Heinicke under center, is appeasing the locker room a good enough reason to stay pat?

As for the playoffs, Washington isn’t there yet. Detroit, Seattle, and Green Bay all sit a half-game back. Lose to the Browns (6-9) Sunday, and the Commanders would drop off the seventh seed perch if any of those three teams win their Week 16 matchups. That’s before Washington hosts Dallas (11-4) in a finale that might be inconsequential for the Cowboys.

Is it good enough to attack these games with the Heinicke status quo? Would that limit the chances of winning big against tougher foes in the postseason? These are among Rivera’s logical wonders as he makes his first sincere QB starting decision of the season while keeping the roster focused on the next game.

“Coach Rivera does a great job of that,” Dotson told reporters Saturday. “Making sure that we don’t dwell on the past, that we’re always looking forward to the next opportunity in front of us. … We’re going to look past this one and move on to the Browns.”

Rivera faces potential backlash from the split fan base regardless of which QB he picks. Missing the playoffs will lead to loud questioning, regardless of that choice, neither of which is sexy or ideal. Rivera made this call once before and likely heads toward Wentz again for the same specific reason: If the offense remains limited, Washington’s chance to succeed isn’t good enough.

(Photo of Carson Wentz: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)





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