It’s no secret that Washington Commanders head coach Ron Rivera wants to win now. That’s why Rivera and the Commanders took an aggressive approach in finding their next quarterback, Carson Wentz. After losing out on a blockbuster trade for Russell Wilson, they sent a 2022 third round pick and a 2023 third round pick to Indianapolis for quarterback Carson Wentz and a 2022 seventh round pick. Rivera and general manager Martin Mayhew have been very vocal about their unwavering hope that Carson Wentz is their quarterback; now and in the future.
Let me be clear: this is not a hit piece on Carson Wentz, or Ron Rivera, or anyone else. This is an objective look at a controversial move made by Rivera and the Commanders. We’re going to take a look at different factors that could potentially force Ron to make some tough decisions. This is the all important third year of Rivera’s tenure as head coach. He has assured us that the third year is when we will see the team take a leap forward.
So why would he make a move that pigeonholes the team during such a crucial offseason? Simply, they did not want to be left behind without a quality starting quarterback, again. In his first year, Rivera settled for what was hoped to be a season of growth for Dwayne Haskins in 2020. As he should have, but hindsight is 20/20. He settled for Ryan Fitzpatrick last offseason after not being aggressive enough in aquiring Matthew Stafford. He did not want to settle again, or be left with the choices of a weak rookie quarterback class, Baby Mayfi… I mean Baker Mayfield, or a limited, injury prone Jimmy Garoppolo.
So then, the question must be asked: how committed is Ron Rivera to Carson Wentz?
The Washington Commanders traded their 2022 third round pick and a 2023 third round pick for Wentz. That could turn into a second round pick if Carson Wentz plays 75% or more of Washington’s offensive snaps. This trade felt like a desperation move. The first quarterback domino to fall was Aaron Rodgers signing an extension with the Green Bay Packers. The Denver Broncos then traded for Russell Wilson. Those were the unprecedented big-swing moves that Rivera hyped up at the very beginning of the offseason. Unfortunately for Rivera, he could not land either of those big name quarterbacks. So, it seems like the Commanders went with Plan (C)arson, and traded for Carson Wentz.
It seems like a steep price for a quarterback that looked like he was going to be released. What’s worse is that there wasn’t any other team that was publicly interested in trading for him. This made Rivera and the Commanders seem desperate (which they are). It also makes it seem like the Commanders overpaid, sending two high draft picks and paying Wentz’s full salary of $28.3M. There have been reports of an unnamed team that the Commanders were bidding against for Wentz, but some (myself included) are skeptical of those reports.
Carson Wentz threw for 27 touchdowns to only 7 interceptions in 2021 with the Indianapolis Colts. Unfortunately for Indianapolis, Wentz and the entire team played awful in their season finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars, losing their spot in the playoffs. Several rumors have swirled about Wentz being a problem in the locker room in Indianapolis. This was the case as well on his previous team, the Philadelphia Eagles. Colts head coach Frank Reich, general manager Chris Ballard, and owner Jim Irsay have taken their turns bashing Carson Wentz throughout the offseason. That did not deter Ron Rivera from trading for Wentz.
This trade could look like a great trade come January. Or, it could look terrible. It really depends on how Wentz ends up playing. If he plays like a top-half of the league quarterback, it’s a fair trade. If he plays like a bottom-half of the league starter or is giving away games, then there will be calls for Wentz’s release and for Rivera’s job from fans. Unfortunately, Wentz has shown both. No one, not even Rivera, is certain of how Wentz will perform. One thing that is certain is that Rivera will stick with Wentz for at least awhile. The Commanders invested a lot of draft capital and cap room in obtaining Wentz. Too much to bail on him early in the season, even if he struggles.
But…Actions Speak Louder than Words
Rivera and Mayhew have stated many times that Wentz is the future at the position. Yet, they did not restructure his current contract. Doing so would have allowed the Commanders to free up more cap space this offseason. Wentz is due $28.3M this season. They could have spread half, or something close to half, of Wentz’s guaranteed salary this season over the remainder of his contract. This would have allowed Rivera and Mayhew to potentially add more impact players via free agency. This could have gotten the Commanders closer to contending for more than an NFC East crown.
Doing so would’ve also proven that Rivera and Mayhew are completely sold on Carson Wentz. There are two years remaining on Wentz’s deal after this season, neither of which have any guaranteed money. Washington could release Wentz at the end of this upcoming season and not owe him a cent. If you truly believe that you have your franchise quarterback, then you lock him up long-term on a deal that’s as advantageous to the team as possible. That is not what they have done. You can’t blame them either-it’s a smart move. Still, it contradicts what Rivera and Mayhew have been saying.
Washington also drafted UNC quarterback Sam Howell. Yes, he was a fifth round pick. Yes, the odds are very much against Howell ever starting in the NFL. It would be unfair to even begin to expect that out of Sam Howell. However, it wouldn’t be crazy if it happened. Before the 2021 season, many thought Howell would be a top five selection in this year’s draft. Prior to the draft, there was still some that thought Howell could go in the first round, and many that thought he’d go in the second or third. Why Howell and many other quarterbacks fell in this draft is unclear. It’s not very likely that Howell starts any games this season, but it’s possible that he’s Rivera’s backup plan if things go south with Wentz.
We’ve seen this before?
For all intents and purposes, let’s just believe everything Rivera has said to this point about Carson Wentz. They believe Wentz gives the Commanders the best chance to win and that he is the future at the position. I feel like we have heard similar things not so long ago about another young talented quarterback on this team…
Yes, I’m talking about Dwayne Haskins. No, I’m not comparing Dwayne Haskins and Carson Wentz as quarterbacks. I’m comparing the situations. Haskins had shown enough talent and enough promise to be given a shot at becoming Washington’s franchise quarterback in his rookie season. Unfortunately, it didn’t end up working out. Haskins downfall is well known and well documented. Going into details here isn’t necessary and I believe would be disrespectful given his recent tragic death. We all know what happened, so I’m not going to rehash all the negative. Rivera bailed on Haskins after only Week 4 of the 2020 season after consecutive poor, underwhelming performances. He believed backup quarterback Kyle Allen gave the team the better chance to win the next several games in a wide open NFC East. His decision proved to be wise as Washington ended up winning the division.
Rivera also benched Cam Newton in 2016 for breaking dress code on the teams airplane. Granted it was only for the opening series of that upcoming game, but the point is, it’s not as if Ron Rivera has never gone to his backup out of frustration with his starter; whether it be for on the field or off the field reasons. The Colts quickly cut ties after one season with Wentz after the Philadelphia Eagles had benched him in 2020. Rumors and reports leaked of his locker room problems from both his former teams. Rivera and the Commanders have been telling us that, despite everything said about him, Wentz has displayed enough talent and enough promise to be given a chance of being Washington’s franchise quarterback. However, would Ron really put up with a bad locker room guy who isn’t performing? He hasn’t in the past.
Depth at Quarterback
Unlike in Carolina, Rivera has options behind Wentz here in Washington. Taylor Heinicke threw for over 3,400 yards, 20 touchdowns, and won seven games last season with no reliable second receiver opposite star wideout Terry McLaurin and a severely disappointing and underperforming defense. Not to mention Washington played a first place schedule, facing the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Green Bay Packers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Not surprisingly, Heinicke went 1-3 in those games, putting up sub-par performances at best.
Is it conceivable that Heinicke could win eight or even nine games with a statistically weak schedule, much better (and hopefully healthy) weapons and, in theory, an improved defense? I think so. I’m not suggesting that Heinicke is the answer. Heinicke threw 15 interceptions last year, some that were quite back breaking in the context of the game. He finished the season with a total QBR of 39.9 (ranked 23rd in the league). He is a limited passer which limits what offensive coordinator Scott Turner can do. Heinicke has played well at times. If Wentz doesn’t play well, Rivera could turn to Heinicke.
Washington also has rookie Sam Howell that they could trot out there and see where he is in his development. Rivera could see if Howell can provide a spark to the offense if he so wishes. Don’t get me wrong; even if Sam Howell turns out to be an outstanding quarterback, he still needs time to learn an NFL-style offense and how to read NFL defenses. We’ll see how well he catches on during the rest of the offseason activities as well as the preseason. That will give us a good gauge on his development. Even if he’s not spectacular from the jump, that doesn’t mean it’s out of the realm of possibility that we see him on the field at some point this season. He’s an intriguing prospect. Rivera might want to see what he has in him before the offseason if Wentz plays himself onto the bench.
To wrap things up, bottom line: the only situation (other than injury) that I believe Rivera would actually bench Wentz would be a situation similar to the 2020 season. Wentz would have to be underperforming and Washington would have to be losing games because of him. Also, the division race and/or the wild card race would have to be wide open. I don’t know how likely that scenario is, but I don’t think we see it. If Wentz is mediocre and the team is hovering around .500, I doubt Rivera would make a switch. Even if Washington is winning in spite of Wentz, I don’t think Rivera switches. If that’s the case, it could be painful to watch for Rivera and for fans at times, but I think Rivera would rather ride to an 8-9 record with Wentz than take a chance benching him and ending up with a worse record.
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