The Washington Commanders stumbled across a winning formula – just run the ball. Ironically, it might not have happened if quarterback Carson Wentz wasn't injured.
Washington was 2-4 when Wentz suffered a fractured finger. Suddenly, a pass-first offense was scrapped for a run-first scheme under quarterback Taylor Heinicke. The Commanders have run more than pass in five of six games in a 5-1 turnaround. With the offense controlling the clock, the defense gained a second breath and stopped retreating against quick-strike offenses.
Suddenly, Washington controls its playoff chances.
Heinicke remains the starter with Wentz now expected to become the backup over Sam Howell after being activated last week. But, no one is advocating for Wentz's return, at least right now. Not as long as Washington is winning.
It's not that Heinicke has been so good that Wentz is an afterthought. Indeed, coach Ron Rivera shrugged off a Heinicke interception against Atlanta on Sunday while a second was dropped by the defender.
"Taylor. It's what we'd expect, make some plays, do a couple of things," Rivera said, "but then come around and make that play that's going to ignite things. And, I think that touchdown throw to John Bates was terrific. I mean he went through his progressions and got it to him, and that's what he does. He's just a scrappy player."
But knowing Heinicke won't win games with his arm, but with his guile, allowed Washington to alter its offense away from standout receivers to workman runners. Brian Robinson delivered his first 100-yard game on 18 carries, plus a highlight-reel touchdown when plowing past a defender on an eight-yard touchdown catch. Antonio Gibson is so much better as a spot runner and receiver in space, running nine times for 32 yards while catching three passes for 22 yards. And, Jonathan Williams is becoming the hammer with 22 needed yards late on four carries.
"We kept those guys for a reason and that's kinda what we're looking for," Rivera said. "We're looking for this type of tandem that can grind it out. And, if one guy is having a great day, we continue to hand the ball to them and the other guys will play their role, and it's vice versa. It works the other way where the other guy's having a good day then the guys play their role. That's a big part of it to me, it's really about that, being able to have a guy that's ready to roll."
Robinson is looking like his preseason self before he was shot twice in an apparent carjacking on the eve of the season. The rookie missed the first four weeks, but two recent efforts showed his old form. He's a modern version of Larry Brown with a bruising inside move and eye for holes.
"He's running with more confidence," Rivera said. "He's starting to get a little bit better feel as to cutbacks and running with his vision. Again, he went through an awful, traumatic situation and he's really just kinda starting to show us what he's capable of."
Still, there will come a game when Washington needs more offense from its passer. And, losses could dictate a swing back to Wentz's big arm. But, Washington learned it can rely on its running game to avoid shootouts it can't often win.
It's a passing league and January is all about the air game. But to reach the playoffs, Washington will stay on the ground.
Rick Snider has covered Washington sports since 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @Snide_Remarks.