Late last fall, the Washington Commanders -- then called the Washington Football Team -- went on a four-game winning streak by playing a very specific brand of football: a combination of an effective run game and controlling the time of possession. By doing so, quarterback Taylor Heinicke was able to play some of his best football and help lead Washington back into the playoff picture.
Unfortunately for Washington, a coronavirus outbreak, injuries and an overall dropoff in play led to the team finishing with just seven wins and no postseason berth. The team went 1-4 over its final five games, unable to replicate the same success the franchise had during its winning streak.
Although that style of football worked well for a brief stretch, the Commanders brass entered the offseason knowing it's not a way to consistently win games over the course of the season. While Heinicke's efforts received praise from both head coach Ron Rivera and GM Martin Mayhew, the franchise made it clear upgrading at QB was a must in 2022. And in early March, the team traded for Carson Wentz.
Wentz, who's four inches taller (it seems like more) and 37 lbs. heavier than Heinicke, brings unprecedented arm talent to the Commanders quarterback room. And partially because of such, Rivera believes Washington's offense is capable of taking a big step forward in 2022.
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"There are some things that Carson does that not a lot of other quarterbacks can do, with his arm strength and his ability to throw the ball specifically vertically," Rivera said following Wednesday's OTA practice. "So, yeah, do I expect us to step forward? I do. I expect us to be able to really expand on what we’ve done in the past."
Offensive coordinator Scott Turner echoed a similar sentiment, specifically citing Wentz's physicality and ability to push the ball downfield. With a quartet of speedy receivers in Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, Jahan Dotson and Dyami Brown, having a more vertical offense in 2022 is certainly a priority.
"You always want to try to do whatever you can to create explosive plays. That's a big part of scoring points," Turner said. "It's hard to consistently drive the field against teams. So, when you can get big chunks, that helps you score points consistently. That's always going to be something that we strive to do.”
Wentz's talent has impressed multiple teammates, too. Jahan Dotson, J.D. McKissic, Charles Leno and Curtis Samuel have all praised the QB during OTAs.
"He's smart, he's intelligent, he's getting the ball out [and] he can move pretty well in the pocket too," McKissic said Wednesday. "He's looking like that young Carson again."
However, while Wentz's arm talent should certainly allow Turner to open his playbook more than in years past, the coaching staff understands there's still a major need for an effective rushing game. The addition of Wentz doesn't change that.
“I don't think it's very difficult at all," Rivera said on blending the two styles of offense together.
"If you run the ball effectively, you're going to be able to throw the ball effectively because you're going to take the pressure off the quarterback to have to constantly make plays," Rivera added. "If you're throwing the ball well, you're going to open up the running game. So, to be able to do those things together in a collaborative effort I think is going to create some real positive things. During that four-game streak, those were the things that we did."
The 2021 Colts offense with Wentz at the helm supports Rivera's point. Indianapolis had the NFL's leading rusher last season in All-Pro Jonathan Taylor, who finished with over 1,800 yards and 18 rushing scores. Even though the Colts had a quarterback with exceptional arm talent in Wentz, Indianapolis was a run-first team.
Washington doesn't have a running back of Taylor's caliber, but the team does have a more-than-solid 1-2 punch of Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic. Plus, the Commanders drafted former Alabama standout Brian Robinson Jr. in the third round, adding a physical rushing style to the running back room that wasn't previously there.
In Turner's eyes, Washington has the pieces in place to have a versatile offense that can attack opposing defenses, both on the ground and vertically through the air.
"You want to be as versatile and be able to in as many ways as possible because now they got more to worry about," Turner said. "So, I think they will have a direct correlation with each other. I think we did a nice job last year of running the football. I think we can get a lot better at that. And I think Antonio’s going to continue to improve. Adding Brian, obviously J.D., [Jaret Patterson], those guys they're going to continue to improve and get better. But yeah, the threats in the passing game, being able to open it up a little bit, that definitely helps everything."
Taylor's epic season, combined with Indianapolis' end-of-season collapse, overshadowed the success Wentz had as a passer in 2021. Wentz's season stat line finished with over 3,500 passing yards, 27 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. To put that in perspective, only one former Washington QB, Kirk Cousins, has thrown for 27 or more touchdowns in a single season since Mark Rypien did so in 1991.
In Washington, Wentz has a much better supporting cast at receiver than he did in Indianapolis. The speed the Commanders have on the outside should play well with Wentz's arm talent, too.
One of the knocks on Wentz throughout his career has been that because of his strong arm, he's had the tendency to force the football down the field, even if that wasn't the right read. It's worked out at times but has also resulted in some pretty ugly interceptions as well.
Moving forward, it's Turner's goal to try and have Wentz understand when it's the right time to use his arm talent to take the downfield shot, but also when to check it down and let his playmakers go to work.
"I just want him to be himself and just understand the game and understand situations. There's a time and place to go for it and there's a time and place where, hey, it's not there," Turner said. "I try to press on him all the time like, 'Hey, I can call another shot.' This isn't something just with Carson, this is with any quarterback. We can always get to another play again if it's not there or you don't see it. Get the ball out of your hand to one of your playmakers, they'll get yards for you and we'll keep going."
As the partnership between Wentz and Turner begins, finding that balance will be crucial to the Commanders' offensive success in 2022 and beyond. So far, the offensive coordinator likes what he's seen from his new signal-caller.
“There's a lot of different things that he's capable of doing, obviously a very skilled player," Turner said. "He can really push the ball down the field. Our group of receivers does a great job of running, getting open and he's finding him. Just being able to work with him day to day and you're kind of learning the things he's capable of. There's not a lot that he's not [capable of].”