Ron Rivera had a simple explanation for his decision to stick with Taylor Heinicke as the Washington Commanders quarterback for the rest of the season: “Winning.” Ideally, that’s the only thing that should ever matter when decisions are made in the NFL.
But the NFL is not an ideal world, and the decision to stick with Heinicke has far-reaching implications that could complicate things for the Commanders in the future. And it almost certainly dooms them to another offseason quarterback search.
First things first, though: Sticking with Heinicke is probably the right call for the moment. The Commanders are 4-1 since he took over, and he sure does seem to have the support of the players in his locker room — an incredibly important factor for any quarterback.
“Every time he comes into play, the team just rallies around him,” Commanders defensive tackle Jonathan Allen told reporters after their 23-10 win in Houston on Sunday. “The offense rallies around him. Can’t really understand it, can’t really explain it. It just is what it is.”
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Taylor Heinicke stopped by to talk with Jen Hale about earning the starting position for the Washington Commanders and the victory over the Houston Texans.
Indeed it is, and the players have made that very clear since Heinicke stepped in when Carson Wentz went down with a broken finger during an ugly victory in Chicago on Oct. 13. They were 2-4 at the time and stuck deep in the NFC East basement.
Now they’re 6-5 and right on the edge of the NFC playoff race.
Heinicke isn’t solely responsible for that. He hasn’t even thrown a touchdown pass in the past two games, and he’s only topped 211 passing yards in one of his five starts. But his mobility and stability, not to mention his knowledge of offensive coordinator Scott Turner’s offense, have provided an undeniable jolt to what previously looked like a lost team.
It’s clearly working, so why change it?
But next season is where it gets complicated. Heinicke, who’ll turn 30 the day the free-agent negotiating period starts in March, isn’t the Commanders’ future. He had his shot last season when he started 15 games and melted down the stretch of a 7-10 season. That’s why the Commanders spent the offseason searching for a quarterback and made their trade for Wentz. And now Wentz is a spare part, surely to be cut in the offseason after collecting $28.2 million in salaries and bonuses this year.
Then what? The Commanders can’t go back to Wentz, especially since they can get out of his contract with no cap implications. They might be stuck with Heinicke, especially if they make the playoffs, like it or not. They do like Sam Howell, who they drafted in the fifth round, but Commanders officials don’t seem to think he’s anywhere near ready. Besides, they like the team they assembled and believe it’s close to competing for a championship. Starting over with a second-year quarterback next season — or a rookie if they decide to draft someone else — would clearly be a step back.
That’s also not something Rivera, who turns 61 in January and will be heading into his fourth season in Washington, will want to do in what could be a make-or-break season for him. So they’ll have to ride the quarterback carousel again, where this time the pickings figure to be slim. Unless Lamar Jackson, Geno Smith or Daniel Jones actually hit free agency, or a 45-year-old Tom Brady wants a new challenge with the NFL’s most dysfunctional franchise, their free-agent options could be Jimmy Garoppolo, Baker Mayfield or Jacoby Brissett, or maybe a trade with Las Vegas for Derek Carr.
None of those options are particularly appealing. Their ideal scenario was to have success with Wentz, let him carry them into 2023 and slowly turn things over to Howell or another young quarterback. But Heinicke’s emergence won’t allow that to happen. That’s good for now. It’s great if he can keep the magic going into the playoffs.
But it still leaves the Commanders with a long-term quarterback problem that they’re going to have to deal with as soon as Heinicke’s wild ride ends.
And eventually, it will.
In the aftermath of the Dallas Cowboys‘ resounding, 40-3 pounding of the Vikings in Minnesota, Jerry Jones could see a Super Bowl in his future. And he might be right. Because little by little, since quarterback Dak Prescott returned, they are starting to look like a Super Bowl team.
“A resounding yes. Yes. Unequivocally,” Jones told reporters after the game. “I think we’ve had adversity. We very easily could have more adversity. But I sure do think that what I see out here right now is the team like that you could go get a Super Bowl with.”
The game certainly had everything for the Cowboys. They had 151 rushing yards, including 80 from Tony Pollard (who also had six catches for 109 yards and two touchdowns). They had a fierce pass rush that sacked Vikings QB Kirk Cousins eight times and hit him 13 times.
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But the real difference in their performance the last few weeks has been Prescott. His performance Sunday — 22-of-25, 276 yards, two touchdowns — was “vintage Dak,” Jones said. And he’s really been on his way toward that since his return from a broken thumb last month.
In four games, Prescott has completed 72.4% of his passes (89-of-123 for 998 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions, for a passer rating of 107.7, which would be the third-best in the league).
And more importantly, their offense has exploded from a unit that produced 300.8 yards and 18.3 points per game during their first six weeks, to one that has averaged 412.8 yards 35.3 points the past four games. In those games they’ve been better than they were last season when they led the NFL with 407 yards and 31.2 points per game.
Last year they just didn’t have the defense to match what the offense was doing. This season they do. Yes, it would help if they had a second receiver to take some pressure off CeeDee Lamb in the passing game (Hello, Odell Beckham?). But even without one, as long as Prescott stays healthy, Jones just might be right.
New York Giants coach Brian Daboll said he had no regrets about his decision to use CB Adoree’ Jackson as his punt returner, even after one of his best defensive players sprained his knee returning a punt. But he should, because it was a shortsighted decision.
He’s right that “there’s a risk playing every player, regardless of what the position is,” but part of the head coach’s job is to understand when to avoid those risks. Daboll clearly felt he had to do something after his old punt returner, Richie James, fumbled two punts in Seattle, costing the Giants their game against the Seahawks. Jackson was a good returner at USC and a decent one with the Titans, where he averaged 8.8 yards on 53 returns over three seasons, so on one level he made sense.
But the impact of punt returners is minimal in today’s NFL, and it’s still a risky job with the other team heading full-steam at the return man with a 40-to-50-yard head start. On a team as thin as the Giants are, especially at cornerback where it was really Jackson and a bunch of nobodies, and in a secondary that already lost safety Xavier McKinney to a broken hand, how could it be worth the risk just to maybe pick up five or six yards?
Was there nobody else who could’ve stood back there and at least made a fair catch?
“Obviously it’s unfortunate,” Daboll said. “You just try to do what’s best for the team.”
In this case, he didn’t, and it could keep Jackson out a month. It also gave Giants fans of a certain age terrible flashbacks to 1998 when another former USC cornerback — Jason Sehorn — was used as a kickoff returner by the late Jim Fassel, then tore his ACL on the first kickoff he tried in the team’s final preseason game.
It was hardly the finest performance of Jalen Hurts‘ career, but he came through when his team needed it most. Off their first loss of the season a week ago, they were trailing the Colts 13-3 in Indianapolis on Sunday when the fourth quarter began.
And that’s where Hurts took over and bailed out his team.
In that fourth quarter, Hurts completed 3 of 5 passes for 38 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown pass to Quez Watkins, and ran eight times for 49 yards and a 7-yard touchdown to put the Eagles ahead 17-16 with 1:20 remaining. That drive included a gutsy, quarterback shotgun draw on fourth-and-2 from the Colts’ 9 just after the two-minute warning. And it was all Hurts, who recognized the middle was clogged, so he casually bounced to the left, off-tackle, for a 3-yard gain and a first down.
It’s interesting that Hurts ran so much with the game on the line — including on three of the final four plays of that game-winning touchdown drive. The Eagles had seemed to make a concerted effort to run him less in recent games, possibly as a way to preserve his body for the stretch run. But Hurts had 16 rushes for 86 yards Sunday — his first game with double-digit carries since Week 5.
But when they needed it most, they gave him the ball and turned him loose.
“Jalen is special with the ball in his hands,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said.
Indeed he is, and that’s a good weapon for the Eagles to have when they need to use it.
Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.
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