When the Washington Commanders had fallen to 1-4 and seemed secure in the NFC East basement, Ron Rivera was asked why his team had fallen so far behind. Their biggest problem, he said then, was “Quarterback.”
Nearly one month later, it still is.
It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s Carson Wentz, or his replacement Taylor Heinicke. They both have shown a knack for making big mistakes in key spots, and generally making everything much harder than it needs to be. That was the case again on Sunday when the Commanders defense gave a tremendous performance against the Minnesota Vikings, only to watch Heinicke throw it all away.
“It hurts,” Heinicke said after the Commanders’ 20-17 loss. “To have them right there and kind of give it away, it hurts.”
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It should hurt, because Heinicke’s inability to move the ball consistently and not throw it away at the end wasted what was at times a dominant performance by the Commanders defense, not to mention a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead. And honestly, it felt inevitable because even though Washington (4-5) had won its previous two games since losing Wentz to a broken finger, Heinicke’s play has had them very much living on the edge.
“A roller coaster ride, man,” is how Rivera described it. “When you watch him do the things he does, when he’s running the operation out there, he’s very confident. He makes a lot of good decisions in terms of where to throw the ball. A couple times it comes out hot and high, but (he’s played) well enough to give us a chance to win in two out of the last three games.”
That’s the positive way to look at it. But there’s another way. After a two-point win over the Packers, a one-point win in Indianapolis, and now a three-point loss to the Vikings, what Heinicke has also done is put them in position to lose. He hasn’t shown the arm or ability to help the Commanders take advantage of opportunities or separate themselves from their opponents.
And they’re just not a good enough team to constantly win in the fourth quarter, hoping they can avoid costly penalties or big mistakes.
Take what happened on Sunday afternoon, when the Commanders had a 17-10 lead and the ball with 10:40 left in the game. About 2 ½ minutes and 5 whole yards into that drive, Heinicke dropped back on 2nd and 11 and threw toward tight end Logan Thomas, who was open over the middle.
But his throw sailed — really, really sailed — over the out-stretched arm of the leaping, 6-foot-6 Thomas, right into the hands of Vikings safety Harrison Smith. He returned the easy interception all the way to the Washington 12, setting up the game-tying touchdown two plays later.
And then when the Commanders and Heinicke got the ball back, they went three-and-out.
There were plenty of reasons for what went wrong on that play. Heinicke said he made a mistake not going with his first read — receiver Dax Milne who was wide open to his left. Rivera thought “he might’ve been a little juiced up” on the throw. They both lamented the fact that if the throw was just a little lower, Thomas would’ve had it for a first down and everything would’ve been fine.
Except that things really weren’t fine. Heinicke was 15 of 28 for 149 yards in this game, but 49 of those yards came on a touchdown pass to Curtis Samuel that was remarkable — and never should’ve happened. For inexplicable reasons, even though Heinicke said “we got the coverage we were looking for” he heaved the ball downfield when Samuel was surrounded by three defenders. Even Rivera said his first reaction to the throw was “Are you kidding me? I saw him throw it and I said ‘Ohhh …'”
That’s because Vikings safety Camryn Bynum had the throw read perfectly all the way and looked like he was drifting back for the interception — until he collided with an official and stumbled away from the play, allowing Samuel to somehow get into position to make an incredible catch.
“Give a game ball to that ref,” Heinicke said. “(Bynum) had a pretty good shot at catching it. The ref made a great play for us.
He should get a game ball. That official was directly responsible for one-third of the Commanders’ entire passing attack. Heinicke threw for 48 yards in the first half, 49 yards on that one play, and 52 yards the rest of the game.
It’s hard to survive like that. It’s hard to keep forcing the defense to go out and do what they did for most of the game — basically shutting down Dalvin Cook (17 carries, 47 yards) until the fourth quarter, and containing receiver Justin Jefferson (7-115-1) after his big opening drive. They were all over Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins (22 of 40, 265 yards), sacking him twice and hitting him 11 times.
The Commanders defense had completely knocked the Vikings offense out of rhythm. If only Heinicke’s ridiculously high throw hadn’t forced them back onto the field in the fourth quarter, trying to defend from their own 12.
No, it wasn’t all Heinicke’s fault. The Washington offensive line is still a mess. The play-calling at times from offensive coordinator Scott Turner is puzzling. And they really should be getting a lot more from their 1-2 punch at running back. Brian Robinson (13-44) and Antonio Gibson (1-36) only combined for 80 yards.
But it’s the quarterback that’s supposed to be the one who makes it all go, who finds ways to use all the weapons the Commanders have. He was 0 for 3 on throws to Thomas and only 5 for 9 on throws to his best receiver, Terry McLaurin. He wouldn’t have had a pass longer than 20 yards if it weren’t for a little help from the official.
And now the Commanders are basically buried in the NFC East, 2 ½ games behind everyone else and heading toward what might be their last stand, in Philadelphia next Monday night against the undefeated Eagles. With Wentz allowed to return the following week, that could be Heinicke’s last stand too.
Then again, it’s not like Wentz was the answer either. Wentz didn’t give them what they wanted in the first five games of the season, and Heinicke only barely provided the spark they thought he could bring off the bench. So it sure looks like Rivera was right: “Quarterback” really is the biggest reason why the Commanders are in the division basement.
And it doesn’t seem to matter who that quarterback is.
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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