The Commanders were tired of finishing runner-up.
Thirteen months after missing out on Matthew Stafford and nearly 24 hours after losing out on Russell Wilson, Washington agreed to a deal with Indianapolis to land quarterback Carson Wentz in exchange for two third-rounders, one that can turn into a second if the QB plays over 70% of offensive snaps next season. The clubs will swap 2022 second-rounders as well.
There are several layers to unpack of this trade, but there's one thing that stands out above the rest: head coach Ron Rivera and general manager Martin Mayhew's desperation to upgrade at the sport's most important position led to landing Wentz.
Just last week, quarterback was the main topic of conversation when Rivera and Mayhew spoke at the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine. They repeatedly mentioned the desire to take big swings at the position this offseason. No matter how much they praised Taylor Heinicke for his efforts in 2021, the last thing Washington's brass wanted to do was enter 2022 with No. 4 as QB1.
"We are looking to upgrade that position and we're looking at every angle that's possible," Mayhew said last week. "We're looking at trade possibilities, draft possibilities, free agents. We're looking at everybody."
"Does anybody really care what was traded for Matthew Stafford last year?" Rivera asked in response to a QB-centric question that same day. "Nope."
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Now seven days later, Wentz is a Commander after only one season with the Colts.
Regardless of how the franchise tries to sell fans on the trade, the reality is that Wentz was not Washington's first choice. The team reportedly made a massive offer for Wilson, one that included three future first-round picks plus more, before Seattle sent him to Denver.
It doesn't stop with Wilson, though. Mayhew went on the record to say Washington had reached out to every team that they thought might have a QB available. With that logic, calls to Green Bay about Aaron Rodgers were likely made, even if landing the four-time MVP was never going to happen. The same goes with San Francisco and Jimmy Garoppolo, or Las Vegas and Derek Carr.
Yet ultimately, Rivera, Mayhew and the rest of Washington's front office decided to make a deal for Wentz -- an agreement that could have been in the works already but appeared to come together rather quickly following Wilson's move to Denver.
In Wentz, Washington gets an upgrade to its quarterback room -- but one that comes with a price. On the surface, Wentz has more talent than Heinicke, who as of now figures to be the Commanders No. 2. Statistically, Wentz is coming off the second-best season of his career, a campaign where he threw for nearly 3,600 yards, 27 touchdowns against only seven interceptions.
As far as pure numbers go, Washington hasn't seen that kind of quarterback production since Kirk Cousins left following the 2017 season. But there's a lot more to the story than the raw numbers, which can often be misleading.
Wentz's tenure with the Colts ended in almost as sour of a fashion as possible. After beating Arizona on Christmas night to move to 9-6, the Colts dropped their final two games of the season -- with the latter coming to the lowly Jaguars, who select first in April's NFL Draft.
Over that two-week span, Wentz contracted coronavirus, which forced him to miss the entire week of practice ahead of Week 17. Wentz struggled against the Raiders, throwing for just 148 yards in the loss. Then against Jacksonville, Wentz was atrocious. The Jaguars took an early double-digit lead and never looked back, as the Colts were never competitive in a game they had to win to make the playoffs.
In the days following that loss, neither Indianapolis general manager Chris Ballard nor head coach Frank Reich would commit to Wentz moving forward. Keep in mind that it was Reich, who was Philadelphia's offensive coordinator in 2017 when Wentz shined, that pushed the Colts to trade for Wentz last spring. According to Zak Keffer of The Athletic, Reich apologized to the Colts brass following the season for doing just that.
Yikes. Seeing that Reich -- who was once Wentz's biggest supporter -- was ready to move on from Wentz should be concerning for Commanders fans.
Like Washington, Indianapolis has spent the past half-decade searching for its franchise quarterback, too, following the abrupt retirement of Andrew Luck. Since 2018, the Colts have had four different Week 1 starters at the position.
Yet, Indianapolis made it clear this offseason that they were ready to move on from Wentz despite his statistically solid season. The fact that the Colts traded him to Washington with no clear successor in place -- the only QB Indianapolis currently has on its roster is 2021 sixth-rounder Sam Ehlinger, who has never thrown an NFL pass -- signals they were out on Wentz moving forward.
There's an old cliche: one man's trash is another man's treasure. That's certainly what Rivera and Washington must hope is the case with Wentz.
To be fair, just because Wentz had a bad ending in Indianapolis does not mean he won't work out in Washington. Rivera believes the Commanders' roster is set up for a veteran like Wentz to come in and succeed.
"I like our team," Rivera said speaking after the Commanders' rebrand became official. "I like where we are. We've got [Pro Football Focus'] No. 6 ranked offensive line, so we have a chance to protect the guy. We've got a 1,000-yard rusher, we've got a 1,000-yard receiver. I can go down the list."
The only problem with Rivera's thinking, though, is a quite similar situation played out with Wentz just last year. In 2021, Indianapolis employed seven Pro Bowlers, the most of any team. Running back Jonathan Taylor turned in an MVP-caliber season. The Colts' offensive line has been one of the NFL's best for years. Indianapolis' defense finished as a top-10 unit, too.
No matter how fondly Rivera talks about his roster, Washington's level of talent can't compete with the Colts as it's currently constructed. That's just the facts.
Despite all of the talent Reich's squad had on its roster last year, the group failed to make the playoffs. Wentz was the main scapegoat for Indianapolis' shortcomings, but a lot of it was deserved, too. Enough for the Colts to hold up two fingers and say 'peace' just weeks later.
Prior to the Wentz trade, Washington was set to have $33 million in cap space -- among the most in the NFL. Acquiring Wentz -- and taking on his full contract -- will take up $28 million of such. All of a sudden, Washington must find ways to create cap space ahead of free agency, a worry that was non-existent until Wednesday afternoon.
If the Wentz experience goes south in 2022, Washington can get out of his contract free of charge next offseason. But, as my colleague Pete Hailey smartly pointed out, if that's the first thought one has after seeing the trade, it's usually not a good sign.
Trading for Wentz should not stop Washington from drafting a quarterback this year, either. Until you find that franchise guy, all avenues must remain open. The reality is that Wentz hasn't looked like a franchise QB since before his ACL tear in 2017. It's 2022. Five football years is an eternity.
But for now, Washington will be the third franchise in as many years to try and get the most out of the 2016 No. 2 overall pick. The coach that drafted Wentz gave up on him. The coordinator that turned him into an MVP candidate five years ago did, too. So, what does Washington see that the rest of the NFL doesn't?
"If we had an opportunity to get a veteran guy, we'd feel really good about that veteran stepping in," Rivera said during the Combine.
For Washington's sake, let's hope he's right. Otherwise, they'll be back to square 1 at this time next year.