The spotlight is on the wrong person after the Washington Commanders traded with the Indianapolis Colts for quarterback Carson Wentz. Forget focusing on Wentz, Commanders’ head coach Ron Rivera should get your full attention.
Trading for Wentz is the biggest gamble in the career of a coach appropriately nicknamed “Riverboat Ron.” The Commanders are rolling the dice Rivera is the man to save Wentz’s career and, in the process, his own place in the Washington hot-seat.
Ron Rivera a Bigger Risk Than Carson Wentz
Rivera needs Wentz to work out because the coach needs to start winning in Washington. Wins have been in short supply since Rivera took over in 2020.
Last season was supposed to offer better proof of what Rivera could achieve. Instead, his handpicked quarterbacks, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Taylor Heinicke didn’t deliver, either due to injury or poor performance.
The defense Rivera and his coordinator Jack Del Rio designed was supposed to be among the NFL’s best. Instead, the unit flopped, allowing 434 points, while the team stumbled through another seven-win campaign
Key draft picks like Chase Young, Jamin Davis, Samuel Cosmi, and Dyami Brown have not played up to expectation. Big bucks free-agent signings like William Jackson III and Curtis Samuel haven’t been worth the money.
There are more questions than answers about Rivera’s tenure. He needs to win and fast. It’s one reason why Thom Loverro of The Washington Times dubbed trading for Wentz as “the move of a desperate man.”
To make it work will require Rivera proving he knows how to reach a temperamental quarterback.
Commanders Hoping Rivera is a Quarterback Whisperer
Here’s one thing the Commanders know. Wentz is a better quarterback than Heinicke or Fitzpatrick, at least from a physical standpoint.
Yet, here’s one thing many around the league also know. Wentz is about to play for his third team in as many seasons because doubts about his temperament aren’t going away.
Loverro detailed how those doubts were first brought to light while Wentz was still a member of the Philadelphia Eagles: “Philly Voice writer Joe Santoliquito was the first to document in January 2019 that some of Wentz’s Eagles’ teammates said he was selfish, uncompromising, egotistical and failed to take accountability. Santoliquito was raked over the coals for the story, but everything that has followed since has validated that revealing piece.”
Some of Wentz’s former Eagles teammates, including running back LeGarrette Blount, mentioned a “distance” between themselves and their quarterback. Blount said as much to 106.7 The Fan’s JP Finlay:
Great convo with @LG_Blount about his time in Philly w Carson Wentz – a lot to listen to – Blount said Wentz kinda "kept me at arms length" but asked if Washington got a good QB – "oh heck yea." By far the juiciest was discussion on Wentz/Sproles
— JP Finlay (@JPFinlayNBCS) March 11, 2022
There’s also a quote doing the rounds from Zak Keefer of The Athletic about how Wentz’s attitude didn’t earn him friends in Indianapolis: “As for the Colts, the issues with Wentz stretched back to before the season began, one source said, and over the course of the year, some grew frustrated at what they deemed a lack of leadership, a resistance to hard coaching and a reckless style of play, which had a role in several close losses this year.”
Wentz couldn’t make it work with his former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich in Indy. That’s an ominous sign for Rivera, who has a lot to do to prove he can effectively manage football’s most important position.
Some would argue Rivera’s quarterback bona fides are secure after helping the Carolina Panthers reach a Super Bowl with Cam Newton in 2015. Making it work with Newton’s sometimes divisive personality should be firm evidence a coach knows how to manage egos.
Things haven’t run as smoothly for Rivera in Washington. He quickly fell out of love with Dwayne Haskins, before briefly deeming the much-traveled Fitzpatrick some kind of answer.
Heinicke only got into the lineup because Rivera’s other choice, Kyle Allen, his former backup in Carolina, didn’t pan out. Now Allen’s on his way out, per Nicki Jhabvala of The Washington Post:
The Washington Commanders are not going to tender restricted free agent QB Kyle Allen, per source. He'll be free to sign with any team next week.
— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) March 10, 2022
Rivera’s recent track record hardly inspires confidence he’s the man to get an emotionally and physically erratic Wentz back on track. That’s the risk the Commanders are taking because the trade itself actually isn’t much of a gamble.
Low-Risk Trade a Smart Move for Washington
The Commanders didn’t give too much away to get Wentz. This wasn’t like swapping three first-round picks just for the right to draft Robert Griffin III in 2012.
Instead, all the Commanders did to acquire Wentz was offer two third-round picks. One of those could become a second-rounder next year if Wentz plays 70 percent of the offensive snaps in 2022, according to ESPN’s Mike Wells.
The other condition of the trade involved the teams swapping second-round picks this year. Moving closer to the mid-point of Round 2 won’t prevent the Commanders from still getting one of the most talented prospects in this year’s draft class.
Still retaining a first-round pick, the 11th overall, means the franchise hasn’t mortgaged its future the way it did for Griffin. The Commanders kept the means to still take a quarterback in this draft, something ESPN reporter John Keim thinks remains a realistic scenario:
One thing mentioned in here from Wed is how one plan has long been to pair a vet w/ a rookie of similar play style. In other words: pairing athletic QBs. Several in this draft fit that description…Can still happen. https://t.co/7IVbols7zI
— John Keim (@john_keim) March 10, 2022
General manager Martin Mayhew has safeguarded the Commanders’ ability to build for the future. He’s also only put the franchise on the hook for Wentz and his salary for one year.
Wentz isn’t the risk, Rivera is, because if things don’t work out in 2022, the Commanders will be looking for a new head coach as well as a new passer.
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