Ron Rivera Went Down With His Chosen Scrub
10:01 AM EST on January 2, 2023
The old cliché about the definition of insanity doesn't necessarily apply here, because Ron Rivera was not working in Indianapolis last season. He has eyes, though, and from his perch in D.C. he saw how things ended for Carson Wentz and the Colts, and for reasons that will remain difficult to explain for years to come, he liked what he saw. He liked it enough to engineer a trade for Wentz in the offseason, and he liked it enough to—against the advice of basically anyone who watched a single Commanders game this season—ask Wentz to do what he could not one year ago.
Last season, it was the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars who stood in the way of Wentz and the Colts going to the playoffs. "Lowly" is probably too kind of a word to describe that particular Jags team, as it was the squad that was coached into the toilet by Urban Meyer and entered the final week of the season with a 2-14 record. All Wentz had to do was beat those guys (that awful, putrid team with nothing to play for) and he would be playoff-bound. Wentz threw for 185 yards, one touchdown, and one interception in that Week 18 matchup, and the Colts lost 26-11.
On Sunday, it was a 6-9 Browns team with no hope of making the playoffs that Wentz and the Commanders had to overcome in order to keep their playoff hopes alive. There was a big difference between the situation the Commanders found themselves in yesterday and the one the Colts were in a year ago, though: Rivera had another option. Right there on his depth chart was Taylor Heinicke, the guy who took over at quarterback when Wentz was injured earlier in the season and guided the Commanders to a 5-3-1 record during his stretch as the starter. Heinicke isn't anybody's idea of a great quarterback, but you don't need one of those to beat a Browns team whose season is already over. You only need a guy who isn't going to throw three awful interceptions and provide no hope of winning the game.
Wentz completed just 16 of his 28 pass attempts on Sunday, was intercepted three times, and finished with 143 yards passing. He did all of this while his home fans booed him and begged for Heinicke to be put into the game, thus imbuing the 24-10 loss, which eliminated the Commanders from playoff contention thanks to the Packers winning their game against the Vikings, with a grim spirit more fitting of a 56-0 blowout. There are many levels of suck that a starting quarterback can plunge into in any given game, but I'm not sure if there is a worse outcome than being openly mocked by opposing defenders after the game ends.
"If you know football, you know [Wentz] has a slow release, and you know Heinicke gets the ball out fast," said Browns linebacker Reggie Ragland, who played on the same college team as some of the current Commanders. "Like some of the guys I know on the team, they would've preferred Heinicke because they know he gets the ball out. You can see it on film too, though. They play different with each quarterback."
Here's Browns defensive end Jadeveon Clowney: "Once we get him rattled in the pocket, it's over."
You might expect some humility from a guy who just torched his team's season by handing the ball back to a quarterback the opposing defense was thrilled to receive a chance to pick on, but Rivera kept his chin up after the game. "I thought he had his moments," Rivera said of his handpicked disaster, before going on to respond to every question about Wentz by bringing up the Commanders' 21-play, 96-yard touchdown drive before the end of the half. Hey, he played well for about 10 minutes. What do you want from me? It's entirely possible that Rivera's postgame nonchalance was down to the fact that he had no idea the Commanders were in danger of being eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday. Oops!
Commanders fans are now left to wallow in the aftermath of yet another losing season, and to wonder what the hell it is their head coach sees in Carson Wentz. Perhaps it's not a question of what Rivera actually saw, but what he imagined. The thing about a quarterback who looks like Wentz is that he is always going to be an intoxicant to a certain kind of NFL coach. A 6-foot-5 slab of a fella who can throw the ball almost the entire length of the field is precisely the kind of player that some coaches dream of attaining when they imagine what their perfect offensive scheme might look like. When Rivera urged his team to trade for Wentz in the offseason, he must have done so with visions of the big quarterback firing his hips and unleashing deep balls down the field dancing in his head, right next to thoughts of play-action passes, deep post routes, and tight ends running free down the seams. Rivera's error was in not seeing everything else that was there in Wentz, the years of steady decline that have transformed him from a siege weapon into a rickety tower just begging to be toppled. The evidence that Wentz isn't even capable of doing the one thing he's still supposed to be good at—completing deep passes down the field—is right there in the interceptions he threw yesterday.
Sometimes coaches make mistakes. This one only cost the Commanders their season.