Tuesday, December 27, 2022


After Washington Commanders starting quarterback Taylor Heinicke had a conversation with coach Ron Rivera on the sidelines following a pick-6 interception during their 37-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday, Heinicke was seen slamming his helmet to the ground while his backup at the moment, Carson Wentz, had his helmet on, warming up to take the field.

Anger? Frustration? At who? Himself? Rivera? Perhaps wanting to smash the earpiece in his helmet so he wouldn’t have to listen to Scott Turner’s play calling anymore?

Heinicke said all the right things after the game. “I get it,” he said . “I was pretty banged up there, and the last two drives was two turnovers. So I get it.”

Reasonable people, though, can conclude that he didn’t like what Rivera had to say to him — perhaps maybe because he felt betrayed.

Heinicke might have recalled what Rivera said publicly earlier in the season: “One thing that I’ve always done is whoever the starter is, I’m going to commit to them fully because I don’t want them looking over the shoulder.”

Or maybe he remembered what Rivera told reporters a month ago: “He (Heinicke) doesn’t need to play well. He just needs to play. We need to continue doing the things that we’re doing. I’m not looking to pull anybody. I’m not looking to yank anybody.”

Heinicke probably thinks he did just that — played. Yes, he had the costly turnovers — the interception and the fumble, a repeat of the turnovers in the loss to the New York Giants the week before. But he completed 13 of 18 passes for 166 yards and two touchdown passes against the 49ers. Former Washington coach Jay Gruden told The Team 980 radio, “I don’t think Heinicke played poorly in my opinion.”

Rivera had publicly committed to Heinicke. Imagine what he told the journeyman quarterback behind closed doors. I suspect it was a more passionate pledge, as coaches typically do to their players in those moments.

There was no such commitment Tuesday when Rivera spoke to reporters, putting off any such announcement on who will start Sunday against Cleveland — Wentz or Heinicke — until Wednesday.

Rivera owes Heinicke. The former XFL backup saved the coach last season when they spent $10 million to bring in Ryan Fitzpatrick, who didn’t last one game before getting hurt. Heinicke came in and gave the coach a semblance of a season, with seven wins despite a lack of offensive weapons (no Jahan Dotson, no Brian Robinson, no Curtis Samuel, no Logan Thomas) and a COVID-19 outbreak that decimated the team near the end.

Then Rivera (or his boss, Skipper Dan the Sailing Man) traded away three draft picks and spent $28 million to bring in NFL pariah Carson Wentz to play quarterback and send Heinicke back to the bench. Wentz lasted six games, losing four of them, before he was hurt, leaving behind a record of six interceptions and six fumbles.

Heinicke came in and saved another season for Rivera

You can argue other factors, but in a league that lives and dies by the quarterback position, the Commanders are alive, with a 7-7-1 record and are in a position to make the playoffs by winning their last two games of the season against Cleveland and Dallas.

Wentz looked good in garbage time against San Francisco, completing 12 of 16 passes for 123 yards and one touchdown, with no sacks and no turnovers. And I am sure he has looked good in practice. Just the two of them standing next to each other on the practice field — the 6-foot-5 Wentz and generous 6-foot-1 listing for Heinicke — would be enough to give one pause in any discussion about who should start.

The Browns don’t represent the kind of challenge this week that the 49ers did on Saturday for Wentz

Cleveland is 6-9 with one of the worst defenses in the league, coming off a 17-10 loss to the New Orleans Saint. But they do have one of the top pass rushers in the league in Myles Garrett. He could have a career day against the woeful Commanders pass protection and the easy target Wentz often presents for sacks. Still, the opportunity is there for a win.

The season finale is Dallas at home, who also have one of the best pass rushers in football in Micah Parsons and a far better defense. But the Cowboys game may not mean anything for their playoff position. If so, there is another opportunity for a win and the playoffs for the second time in Rivera’s three years in Washington.

Who will Rivera turn to for the finish? The ugly duckling who has saved him or the homecoming king who looks good until you hit the dance floor?

You can hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC.