For once, chemistry is not something that erupts for the Washington Commanders.
Washington won its fifth in six games with a 23-10 thumping of the Houston Texans on Sunday. It was a rare butt-kicking the team has often received in recent decades but rarely delivered. The defense overwhelmed the NFL’s worst team, special teams sparkled and the offense won its second straight game without quarterback Taylor Heinicke throwing a touchdown pass.
Washington (6-5) is in the playoff chase come Thanksgiving after once looking like it was eliminated before Halloween.
The difference following a 1-4 start – chemistry.
No. 1 is quarterback Taylor Heinicke. Teammates love the scrappy undrafted passer who bounced around the league and even a spring league before finding a home in Washington in 2020. He is not among the NFL’s top passers. The scheme too often betrays his strengths. Yet, Heinicke is not afraid to win and teammates are connected to a quarterback for the first time since Robert Griffin’s 2012 rookie year.
It doesn’t always make sense. Carson Wentz has a better arm and resume, yet coach Ron Rivera opted to stay with Heinicke despite Wentz healthy once more after needing surgery on his throwing hand. Winning, said Rivera succinctly, is why Heinicke remains No. 1.
Really, that’s the best way to explain it. Rather, there is no clear explanation of why Heinicke works so well and is beloved by teammates and fans in an age when the Tom Bradys, Josh Allens, Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers thrill fans with 300-plus yard games. Heinicke is lucky to break his reported 205 pounds that was clearly weighed with a brick in each pocket.
But Heinicke is the reason analytics should be a supplemental stat and not a blueprint. Some things can’t be measured and that’s Heinicke’s chemistry with everyone around him.
But, the Commanders are about to face another chemistry dynamic when activating defensive end Chase Young against Atlanta on Sunday. Much has happened to this line during Young’s absence. It has become a fist rather than individual stars. Will his return unravel or enhance that?
Rivera often says the line’s poor performance last season and earlier this fall came from too much freelancing. Finally, the group started working together. Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen are the NFL’s best interior combo with six sacks each, forcing teams to focus on the middle while end Montez Sweat sweeps around for the run and six sacks.
Young’s absence hasn’t caused a hole on the outside, though. Casey Toohill has become a solid end. The backups are playing well. Teams haven’t bullied the line in months.
When Young returns, does he try to do too much in a zest to reclaim his 2021 form that won Defensive Rookie of the Year as the second overall choice? He’ll be on a limited snap count for the final six games, but is that still enough time to impact the line’s production good or bad?
The Commanders are in a good place. When something works, it’s best to leave it alone. Yet, Washington will need more from Heinicke to truly become a playoff contender. It needs Young to be another nail in the Alabama Wall rather than a hammer – for now.
The harder coaching challenge is not taking a bad team to good, but a good team to great. There lies Rivera’s immediate task. Let’s hope he paid attention in chemistry class.
Rick Snider has covered Washington sports since 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @Snide_Remarks.