Ron Rivera says QBs are the difference-maker in the NFC East

Before the 2021 season ended, Ron Rivera made it clear that Washington was in the market for a new quarterback. Ryan Fitzpatrick had been injured in the season opener, and backup Taylor Heinicke, a fan favorite, was limited, especially in the offense that coordinator Scott Turner hoped to run.

“The third season is when you take another step,” Rivera said in January. “And, hopefully, we’ve done the things with the other positions that would warrant us finding the guy to put in and get ready to roll. … That’s the important thing that we have to decide on.”

Plug and play was Washington’s approach. The Commanders traded for Carson Wentz in March, believing they had built a roster that could protect him and would provide ample playmakers. They didn’t think the transition would be free of hiccups but believed Wentz, as an experienced player, could succeed — and that he might not need the extra time a rookie would have to adjust to the NFL.

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But now, five games into the Carson Wentz Experience, the Commanders are 1-4 and on the brink of implosion as the rest of the NFC East passes them by. Blame doesn’t fall entirely on Wentz’s shoulders, but the solutions to the Commanders’ problems seem more elusive than ever.

“Be more consistent,” Rivera offered Monday. “One thing we can’t do is have penalties — silly penalties. … We’ve got to continue to work at it. It’s interesting because when you put all the pieces together that you want and you get them there for that period of time, it starts to happen. And so we just got to continue to work hard at it.”

Washington’s fourth consecutive loss, a 21-17 buzzkill against the Tennessee Titans that came down to two yards in the final 19 seconds, was a window into the Commanders’ conundrum. In spurts, Wentz is the quarterback they need, with his deep passing capable of creating big plays. But he and the team built around him have found new ways — self-inflicted ways — to lose each of the past four weeks.

“The disappointing part is you learn, ‘Okay, that’s what we did last week; we can’t do that.’ And when it’s something new, that’s the frustration of it,” Rivera said. “We just corrected this, and now we have something over there. It’s that inconsistency that gets you.”

Rivera’s frustration after the loss to the Titans was obvious and seemed to intensify Monday as he fielded questions about the state of his team.

“We played well enough to win,” he said. “We just didn’t play consistently. … You give up a couple of big plays, and then you miss a couple of opportunities. I know I’ve said that before, but that’s the truth.”

A self-described optimist, Rivera rarely shows his anger publicly. But the last time he was this upset over his team’s play was in early 2020, during his first season on the job. Washington started 1-3 before Rivera decided to bench young quarterback Dwayne Haskins.

He said at the time that the move was necessary for the growth of the rest of the team — and it panned out. The NFC East was the dregs of the NFL that year, and two things helped Washington’s late push to the playoffs: the return of Alex Smith from a gruesome leg injury and the division’s poor play. Washington (7-9) became the fifth team to make the playoffs with a losing record.

But the Commanders are in the same predicament two years later, with no clear answer at quarterback and a roster thwarted by its own mistakes. And this time, the NFC East is one of the most difficult divisions in the NFL, pushing Washington further into a hole. The Giants and Cowboys are 4-1, and the 5-0 Eagles are the NFL’s lone undefeated team.

“Quarterback,” Rivera said when asked why Washington’s divisional rivals are succeeding.

“The truth is, this is a quarterback-driven league,” he added. “And if you look at the teams that have been able to sustain success, they’ve been able to build it around a specific quarterback.”

The Eagles fit the bill. They benched Wentz and then traded him away to build around Jalen Hurts, now one of the NFL’s most prolific quarterbacks.

Yet the Cowboys have won four consecutive games with Cooper Rush — an undrafted player they signed in 2017 and then cut in 2020 — filling in for the injured Dak Prescott.

“But they started with Dak, and they built around Dak, and the offense is built around Dak,” Rivera contended. “Their backup is a guy that’s very solid inside of what they do.”

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And in New York, the Giants tried for years to build around Daniel Jones. Last season, they were the worst team in the NFC East. Now, despite a litany of injuries, they’re experiencing success under first-year coach Brian Daboll. On Sunday, they upset the Green Bay Packers in London.

“I have no regrets about our quarterback,” Rivera said of Wentz. who appeared on the injury report Monday with a right shoulder issue. “I think our quarterback has done some good things. There have been a couple of days that he struggled. … [But] the way he performed [Sunday], it just shows you what he’s capable of. We chose him because we believe in him.”

In March, Rivera repeatedly said Wentz was wanted — but a recent report indicated that the Commanders first tried to trade for San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo. He said Wentz fit what the team was trying to do and that he could be the long-term answer at quarterback.

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“He’s got to work with those pieces. It’s like walking into a new job,” Rivera said Monday. “The job’s already been there. … You walk in, and you’re the new guy. You’ve got to learn everybody, don’t you? You’ve got to learn to work with everybody, got to learn to do your job with everybody.”

But as the Commanders spiral, Rivera’s rebuild is running out of time. The Year 3 leap has yet to occur, and if Washington suffers another loss Thursday night at Chicago, any hope for one may be grounded for good.

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