Back in October, when Ron Rivera was asked why he thought his team was still struggling in comparison to the rest of the NFC East, the Washington Commanders head coach’s one-word answer raised every set of eyebrows in the NFL: “Quarterback.”
It was a mistake from Rivera to answer the question so flippantly in a press conference in the middle of the season. But both at the time and in retrospect, after Carson Wentz's likely lone season in Washington, the head coach was right. The QB was the difference then and remains the difference now. In reality, Rivera's answer was really just one of those Washington, inside-the-beltway gaffes that are only gaffes because the person in charge slipped up and accidentally said the truth.
During his three years in Washington, Rivera has had to talk an awful lot about the QB position. He inherited a roster with a second-year QB who everybody knew wasn't ready to be the starter, and a veteran coming back from a catastrophic knee injury who everybody thought would never play again. That March, he dealt a late-round pick for Kyle Allen, to have a passer who would at least be familiar with then-offensive coordinator Scott Turner's system.
It has been just over 1000 days since that trade at the start of the pandemic. Rivera is still searching for a QB. And the head coach's past comments should have every Commanders fan concerned he won't find the future of the position, either. Temper all expectations that something great is coming to Washington to revitalize the franchise.
In a phone interview earlier this month with The Athletic’s Joe Person, Rivera talked about QBs and, at first, said all the expected things.
“It’s really about the quarterback, let’s be honest about that. That’s the one thing everybody seems to be missing,” Rivera said. “If you have the quarterback — and he’s very young — and you have that guy, then you can do a lot."
He added: One thing that really wasn’t in place [in Washington] is we were trying to find a quarterback. We’re still trying to find a quarterback.”
Rivera seems to be vocalizing the known truth of this era of the NFL: Your team is only as good as the quarterback and if you want to be a contender for anything that matters – think conference title games and the Super Bowl – you better have a quarterback who can get you there.
He said a similar thing in October during that infamous press conference.
“And the truth is this is a quarterback-driven league,” Rivera said during the season. “And if you look at the teams that have been able to sustain success, they’ve been able to build it around a specific quarterback.”
But here is where things get concerning. Rivera isn't actually saying that. He isn't saying Washington needs to find a quarterback who can take advantage of the weapons of Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson and propel the Commanders into the NFL of 2023 with a great passing game.
Speaking of the Commanders, he told Person, “We may have it in Sam Howell. We’ll see... It’s been hard, just trying to find that [QB] that fits us.”
Fits us? What exactly does Rivera mean by that? What existing structure of success around the quarterback position does Rivera think has in place here that the new QB must fit into?
In the end-of-season press conference, GM Martin Mayhew said they brought in Wentz because "we thought he was a good fit for how we wanted to play football and we weren't able to play that style of ball."
Why not? Because they didn't have the run game going early in the season. "We were two-to-one pass-run, which is not our formula," he said. "As you saw [in Week 18], we were two-to-one run-pass. For every time that we threw the ball, we ran the ball twice. That's how we want to play."
For Rivera, being a run-first team is "a philosophical belief" and not one that is driven by personnel at quarterback. Mayhew added: "Our formula of football is playing great defense, running the ball, having the quarterback utilize play-action off our run scheme."
And here is the root of the concern for Commanders fans: Rivera and Mayhew are talking about a formula that no longer works. And they'll be looking for a quarterback who fits an offense that no longer works in this era of the NFL.
So, what QB fits this bill? Just any old game manager.
Rivera doesn’t want a quarterback who is special. He doesn’t want a passer who can make things happen down the field. He wants just anybody who doesn’t get in the way. Hand the ball off on first down and most second downs and doesn't turn it over too much. Score a handful of points and keep the game close.
Sounds like you are describing... Joe Flacco? Yup. He's searching for the next Joe Flacco, a middle-of-the-pack quarterback who will allow Washington to just kinda hang around. (He may even end up signing the Joe Flacco, who at 38 is a free agent.)
A quarterback who simply doesn't need to, or simply can't, generate much on offense in the passing game. Tough break for McLaurin and Dotson.
And tough break for any Commanders fan who wants to see their team push for something better, better than just hanging around in games and hanging around in the "In the Hunt" graphic.
So temper all expectations. Mayhew and Rivera are just looking for a normal guy who will fit in. Not somebody who is worthy of building a new offense around. And certainly not somebody who has the ability to take the Commanders to the next level.
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