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Analysis | Ron Rivera’s QB decision isn’t about skill. It’s about appetite for risk.



The quarterback decision facing Washington Commanders Coach Ron Rivera is less about who’s better and more about his appetite for risk. Rivera knows what to expect from Taylor Heinicke and Carson Wentz, well-defined quarterbacks on the doorstep of 30, and he must decide which skill set puts his team in the best position for its final playoff push.

Does Rivera want to keep betting on the current formula with Heinicke, who has a modest floor and a low ceiling, or would it be worth it to gamble on Wentz? Wentz’s arm strength would make the offense more explosive, raising its ceiling, but his tendency to hold on to the ball would lower the floor, with the rate at which he takes sacks threatening to torpedo any drive.

This week, Rivera said he wouldn’t make a change but acknowledged it’s something that “I do have to think about at some point.” It seems part of the reason he’ll stick with Heinicke for now is Saturday’s matchup with the San Francisco 49ers’ elite defense, which is athletic and led by star edge rusher Nick Bosa, a front-runner for defensive player of the year honors. Rivera is banking on Heinicke’s ability to avoid sacks and keep the offense on schedule.

“If we can run the ball successfully and do a few other things, it will offset some of the things that they do and do well,” Rivera said.

But every option seems to be on the table. Rivera could switch quarterbacks for the final two weeks, at home against Cleveland and Dallas, or in the middle of a game. If Heinicke hadn’t led a touchdown drive to open the second half Sunday night during the Commanders’ loss to the New York Giants, he told NBC Sports Washington, he would’ve considered turning to Wentz. And last week, Rivera said the team has entertained the idea of using both quarterbacks but didn’t know when.

On Tuesday, asked whether he felt he was playing for the starting job, Heinicke demurred.

“I am going to focus on the game and try and go get a win,” he said. “If they want to go with Carson, great. I’ll be the best backup I can be. That’s the most I can do … control what I can control.”

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Staying with Heinicke is the safe move. The Commanders have scored between 17 and 23 points in six of his eight starts. Their scoring totals with Wentz — 28, 27, eight, 10, 17, 12 — capture the sort of variance Rivera would have to be comfortable with if he made a change. But in those starts, Wentz didn’t have the benefit of playing in Washington’s current run-first system. He was playing on hard mode. Before his finger injury, Wentz ranked sixth in the NFL in pass attempts (232), and the majority of those (133 according to Sports Info Solutions) were dropbacks without the help of play-action, motion and screens.

Rivera must project how Wentz would fit into the role Heinicke has filled. There are clues — Indianapolis used a similar approach with Wentz last year — but nothing concrete. Would more time in the system help Wentz avoid taking so many sacks, or is the offensive line too leaky to overcome? Do the Commanders need Wentz’s arm strength in the red zone, where Heinicke is struggling mightily, or does offensive coordinator Scott Turner just need to forgo balance and run the dang ball?

Rivera’s answers to those questions is key. And Monday, he emphasized the Commanders need to stay committed to the run regardless of their quarterback.

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“We can run the football, and we can run the football downhill,” he said. “Off of that, we can be a play-action team, a bootleg team, a physical-up-front team. It gives our offensive line an opportunity to fire out and not have to catch as much. We’ve seen that has been successful, and we got to continue with that type of mentality, in my opinion, just because I believe that is part of the formula.”

Turner has tried to have it both ways and re-create some of Wentz’s explosiveness with Heinicke. In Washington’s back-to-back games against the Giants, Heinicke attempted as many throws of 20-plus air yards (13) as he had in his previous six games combined. He completed four of them for 128 yards, huge boosts to the offense, but they led to an uptick in sacks (eight in the past two games after just nine in Heinicke’s first six). Those sacks put the offense in more obvious passing situations, where Heinicke and the line struggle. It has been close to the worst of both worlds.

“If you’re going to take those shots, your second-down play has got to be viable,” Rivera said. “It’s got to get more than two yards or three yards because at that point you’re behind the sticks, and then it becomes challenging on third and long.”

For now, at least, Rivera seems to prefer the safer option — sticking with a run-first style and taking fewer shots. It’s the devil Rivera knows and a formula that has mostly worked over the past eight games. He’ll bet on more cohesive play-calling from Turner and subtle improvement from Heinicke. One example: Rivera said Heinicke could be better on passes in the low red zone — defined as the area between the opponent’s 5- and 14-yard lines — by making quicker decisions in the condensed space. If his initial read isn’t open, he must progress to the next more quickly.

“We’ve got to keep that clock in his head going,” Rivera said.

But if Rivera doesn’t see improvement, he could do what he has been hinting at, take the risk and make a change.

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