Carson Wentz has a $28.3 million cap hit this season. That’s the sixth-largest among quarterbacks, and it was a number that coach Ron Rivera agreed to take on 100% when the Washington Commanders traded multiple draft picks to the Indianapolis Colts for the 29-year-old in the offseason. The coach saw Wentz as a clear upgrade at the position — a passer who could make big-time throws and elevate Washington’s offense, a player well worth the price tag.
“I think being a little bit more in tune with the run would be good for us,” Rivera said.
Washington took a noticeably different offensive approach during Sunday’s defeat, taking the pressure off Wentz to make big plays with his arm and instead calling more quick passes and leaning heavily on the run game.
Wentz still threw 42 times — the second-most of the weekend — but a staggering 28 of the quarterback’s attempts went no further than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage (LOS). Twenty-one of his 25 completions were at, before or within five yards of the LOS, and Wentz got the ball out at his fastest rate of the season at 2.58 seconds, according to Next Gen Stats. Wentz’s 4.05 yards per attempt were his lowest since his 2016 rookie season, when he had the same number in a loss to the Ravens.
The adjustments were an attempt to address the offense’s troubles in recent games. A week earlier, Wentz had been sacked a career-high nine times against his former Philadelphia Eagles team. The offense, as a whole, had stalled after a promising season debut against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Against the Cowboys, the Commanders ran the ball on 16 of 29 first downs. That was a sharp reversal from the first three weeks when Wentz threw it 59% of the time. The change in strategy mirrored last year’s shift when Washington started to run the ball a lot more following its bye week, with the team relying less on then-starting quarterback Taylor Heinicke. Last year’s change helped spur a four-game winning streak, though Sunday’s switch didn’t result in a victory.
Game plan or not, there were plenty of moments in Sunday’s loss that begged the question of whether Washington’s coaching staff still trusts Wentz enough to make the kinds of plays necessary to steal games. And Wentz is arguably doing little to show coaches should trust him.
Look no further than a sequence just before halftime. Initially, Rivera had been aggressive when trying to get the ball back for one final drive — declining a 10-second runoff and calling timeout with 1:15 left during the Cowboys’ series. But when the offense finally trotted out on the field following a Dallas touchdown, Turner continued to play it safe with Wentz.
The Commanders opened their series with a short run and let 38 seconds burn off the clock. Wentz then threw it short to Logan Thomas, who gained five yards before the tight end was pushed out of bounds. After that, another short-yard run — with Rivera calling timeout with 17 seconds left. With time almost expired, Wentz finally took a deep shot … that was intercepted at Dallas’ 17-yard line.
If the Commanders trusted Wentz to lead them down the field, would they have pushed the pace sooner?
“You’d love to be more successful and more dynamic,” Wentz said. “I’ve got to be more accurate … give guys a chance.”
Added Rivera on Monday: “If we can continue to establish the run, it’s gonna help with the passing game, which is gonna slow down the pass rush, which is gonna open some things up.”
Publicly, Rivera backs Wentz. Asked if it was frustrating his $28.3 million quarterback needs a lot of tools around him to succeed, the coach pointed to the team’s injuries as affecting circumstances. The Commanders have already lost their top two centers with Chase Roullier (knee) and Wes Schweitzer (concussion) on injured reserve. Rivera said Monday that standout rookie wide receiver Jahan Dotson, too, will now miss a week or two with a hamstring injury.
But elsewhere, Rivera continued to stress the importance of the run game. Against Dallas, the Commanders’ running backs combined to rush for 137 yards on 26 carries. And while that didn’t result in more than 10 points scored, Rivera expressed optimism that rookie Brian Robinson Jr.’s pending return would further provide a “shot in the arm” to Washington’s rushing attack.
Robinson, Rivera said, will practice Wednesday — more than a month after he was shot twice in an armed robbery attempt. The 6-foot-2 third-rounder was poised to become the team’s starting back before the attack.
If the Commanders have truly started to sour on Wentz, if they feel that the best way to win games is to not rely on their signal-caller, then it wouldn’t be the first time a team has lost faith in Wentz. Last season, the Colts dramatically changed its approach with Wentz after opening the season 1-4. Wentz went from averaging 34.6 passing attempts through Indianapolis’ first five games to 28.6 attempts the rest of the way.
The Commanders, meanwhile, are 1-3. And Rivera said he feels a “sense of urgency” to turn things around. During his remote press conference, the coach became animated and launched into a three-minute answer when asked about fans being upset about the lack of wins three years into his tenure.
“I understand everybody’s frustration, especially how proud this organization is,” Rivera said. “This organization’s got five championships. You [expletive] kidding me? I get it. I understand how important it is to win, OK? But I gotta be realistic with what we have and what we’re going to do.”
Right now, Washington has a high-priced quarterback that’s struggling. And the Commanders are searching for answers.
• Matthew Paras can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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