Ron from the Riverboat is at it again.
With the possibility of clinching the NFC’s final playoff spot hanging in the balance, Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera is taking a chance by reintroducing Carson Wentz as his starting quarterback and benching Taylor Heinicke.
Desperation in a pinch? Playing the strong hand? Check. Check.
Bottom line, Rivera had no choice but to make this move now, as the season is hanging by a thread.
Of course, Wentz, who has been on injured reserve for several weeks while recovering from a fractured ring finger, is back in the position that was envisioned when Washington traded a package of draught picks to acquire him from the Indianapolis Colts last spring. He was supposed to be Rivera’s long-awaited answer at the game’s most important position.
So, kudos to Wentz. After regressing to the level of mediocrity after appearing to be one of the NFL’s young, future quarterback stars during his early years in Philadelphia, he now has another chance to prove his worth. That prove-it theme followed him to Washington, his third team in three years, and it’s back in make-or-break mode a year after Wentz failed to lead Indianapolis to victory in a similar, win-to-get-in situation.
He’ll return to the starting lineup on New Year’s Day, which may feel like something out of the movie Groundhog Day in some ways.
The fact that Wentz’s bottom fell out in this situation last year in his one season with the Colts – who lost to the Raiders and Jaguars in the final two weeks to miss the playoffs – serves as a double dose of caution. Rivera, on the other hand, has the hope of stock-market theory: Past performance does not predict future results.
Benching Heinicke is a far cry from benching an established quarterback, but it does highlight the NFL’s what-have-you-done-lately stakes. Heinicke has proven to be a fighter, winning five of his six starts to help Washington claw its way into the playoff picture. Without Heinicke, the Commanders would not even be in the playoff race. Heinicke was an NFL quarterback version of a club fighter the past two weeks, in losses at San Francisco and against the Giants. That’s not good enough.
Rivera fueled speculation about a switch by pulling Heinicke after he committed two turnovers on consecutive drives in the fourth quarter against the 49ers (a defence that has beaten up the best quarterback), then watching Wentz come off the bench and lead Washington to a touchdown drive.
Still, quarterback moves can be tricky, as Rivera is well aware. This is the tenth quarterback change since Rivera took over as Washington’s coach in 2020. In this case, Rivera appears to have concluded that they’ve gone as far as they can with Heinicke and that Wentz gives Washington (7-7-1) a better chance of beating Cleveland on Sunday than a playoff-bound Dallas Cowboys team.
In Wentz’s absence, Heinicke has averaged 206.6 yards passing, while Washington’s offence has relied heavily on a 13th-ranked running game. Wentz typically puts up higher numbers, and his performance running the no-huddle offence on Sunday apparently made an impression on Rivera.
And, hey, Heinicke is still in Rivera’s back pocket in case another emergency switch is needed.
However, reintroducing Wentz into the lineup serves as a reminder of Rivera’s assessment from earlier this season. When the Commanders were defeated by the Tennessee Titans in Week 5, when Wentz passed for 359 yards but threw a game-winning interception in overtime, someone asked Rivera to distinguish Washington from the leading NFC East contenders, Philadelphia and Dallas.
“Quarterback,” Rivera stated unequivocally.
That was back then. And here we are. Rivera may have thrown Wentz under the bus in October, but the coach now needs the quarterback to make him pay for it. Or else.