- The Washington Times
Tuesday, January 5, 2021

NFL coaches often talk about doing whatever it takes to win. But on Tuesday, Ron Rivera took that narrative to another level by suggesting a nearly unprecedented move for Saturday’s wild-card showdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Washington coach left open the possibility his team could rotate quarterbacks between series as starter Alex Smith deals with a strained calf. If applied, that means Washington would alternatve Smith and backup Taylor Heinicke.

Washington would likely only make such a swap if Smith is still hindered by his injury. After missing two games due to the strain, the 36-year-old’s mobility looked limited upon his return in the team’s ugly 20-14 win at Philadelphia. Smith threw for 162 yards on 32 attempts, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He struggled to handle pressure and was sacked three times.

This isn’t the first time Washington has entered a playoff game with a quarterback facing questions about his health. In 2012, Robert Griffin III was dealing with a lingering knee injury ahead of the team’s wild-card game against Seattle — and famously tore his ACL during that contest.

“We have to look at it,” Rivera said of a possible rotation. “There’s nothing you can do about it, that’s the truth of the matter. We’re going to play a very aggressive defense this week. Obviously, it’s something we most certainly have to look at.

“I didn’t say we were going to do it,” he added later. “I just said it’s something we need to think about.”

Needless to say, rotating quarterbacks — in a playoff game, no less — is extremely rare in the NFL. Teams like the New Orleans Saints occasionally use their backup quarterback in specialty packages to keep defenses off balance, but rarely alternate signal-callers between series. Asked if he could point to a scenario when rotating quarterbacks worked, Rivera said he had yet to fully look into the matter.

Washington, though, will explore the possibility. Smith told reporters after Sunday’s win that his calf tightened up throughout the second half. With Smith not fully healthy, Heinicke could be used as a spark and his mobility can help extend plays. Rivera said Sunday he even considered benching Smith for Heinicke before ultimately sticking with the three-time Pro Bowler.

Smith first suffered the injury Dec. 13 in a win against the San Francisco 49ers. Dwayne Haskins replaced Smith just before halftime and started the next two games, both losses. Washington benched Haskins for Heinicke in a Week 16 loss to the Carolina Panthers, leading the former first-rounder’s release the next day.

Heinicke, an Old Dominion alum and a 2015 undrafted free agent, played well in relief. Against the Panthers, he threw for 137 yards and a touchdown in a quarter of action.

Washington had signed Heinicke in December due to the quarterback’s existing knowledge of offensive coordinator Scott Turner’s system as he was a former backup with the Carolina Panthers. Until Washington called, Heinicke had been out of the NFL, spending time as a backup in the upstart XFL and going back to school to get his mathematics degree.

Rivera said if Washington uses two signal-callers, the team’s game plan wouldn’t be different.

“To have two separate game plans, you’re asking for way too much from your team,” Rivera said. “That’s why it’s important, in my opinion, to have quarterbacks that have been in your system and know your system. That’s why we brought Taylor in a few weeks back because here’s a guy that’s been in the system a few times.”

Rivera didn’t know if Smith’s calf injury will hamper him for the rest of the season, or could be healed in time for Saturday’s game. In his first season back from a life-threatening leg injury, Smith has surprisingly been Washington’s most effective quarterback this season — leading the team to a 5-1 record. His ability to protect the football, make decisive throws to a variety of receivers and manage the game have provided stability to the team.

But in dealing with the injury, there are concerns whether Smith can be mobile enough to escape a ferocious Tampa Bay defense. The Buccaneers are tied for fourth in sacks with 48 and according to Pro Football Reference, they are top five in blitz percentage (39%) and pressure rate (26.7%). Tampa Bay’s defensive front includes stars like Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul.

Asked to evaluate Smith’s mobility over the weekend, Rivera said Smith “had his moments.” The quarterback’s two touchdowns came in the first half, once on the team’s opening series and then in a two-minute drill just before halftime.

“That first drive was what we were looking for,” Rivera said. “I will say, the drive right before halftime was excellent. There were a couple things that happened unfortunately where you say: ‘Oh, I wish he had stepped away from that.’ But as long as he’s performing and doing the things that he needs to do to help us, we’ll keep rolling.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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