Why the Commanders turned back to Carson Wentz with playoffs at stake

ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Commanders traded for quarterback Carson Wentz last offseason for a reason: They viewed him as an upgrade over Taylor Heinicke.

It makes sense they’re turning to Wentz again with two games left and a playoff spot at stake. Washington announced Wednesday morning that Wentz would return to the starting lineup. He broke his right ring finger on Oct. 13 and spent the past two games on the active roster as Heinicke’s backup.

In Wentz's absence, Heinicke guided the Commanders to a 5-3-1 record as a starter and placed them in the thick of the playoff hunt. But after three straight winless games in which the offense has struggled to score, the Commanders are going back to Wentz for the team's final two games against the Cleveland Browns (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Fox) and the Dallas Cowboys.

Here’s what you need to know about the move.

Why now?

Multiple reasons. Washington is 0-2-1 in its past three games and, while it’s certainly not all Heinicke's fault, the offense hasn’t produced enough despite a strong running attack. The Commanders’ offense has scored 23 or more points twice in the past eight games -- and none in the past five.

Red zone offense has been a primary issue. In Heinicke’s eight full starts before being benched late in Saturday’s 37-20 loss at the San Francisco 49ers, Washington ranked 13th in total yards but 26th in the red zone and 27th on third downs. Heinicke is far from alone in the blame, but he also plays a position for which the Commanders have an alternative they view as the better option.

What does this mean for Wentz's future?

Washington needs to decide if he’s its quarterback for 2023 -- and perhaps a few years longer.

Washington gave up two third-round picks and swapped second-round picks last season to acquire Wentz from Indianapolis. The Commanders also absorbed his $28 million cap hit in 2022. While it wasn’t an exorbitant price, it was costly enough to suggest they viewed him as more than a one-year experiment.

However, Wentz has no more guaranteed money over the final two years of his deal. That means Washington could cut him without any cap penalty. But team sources say the Commanders would prefer not to look for another quarterback this offseason.

If Wentz plays well -- winning the last two games and, perhaps, one in the playoffs -- then Washington could extend him, lowering his $26.7 million cap hit in 2023.

Wentz has started six games this season, so the Commanders need to see more. That’s not the primary reason they made this move, but it is one aspect of the decision.

How does the offense change?

If Washington is smart, the identity won’t change, but the ability to have a more diverse passing attack will.

Wentz threw 38 or more passes in each of the first five games and topped 40 attempts four times. Washington went 1-4 in those games. With Wentz and receivers Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel, offensive coordinator Scott Turner opted for a pass-heavy philosophy. In Wentz’s first six starts, Washington ranked 20th in number of runs and 25th in the first half of those games.

But, in the nine games under Heinicke, the Commanders threw 33 or fewer passes seven times and 29 or fewer four times in a 5-3-1 stretch. The Commanders are tied with Chicago for the most runs during this stretch.

The Commanders want to run the ball with Brian Robinson Jr. using a lot of inside power schemes. Robinson missed Wentz’s first four starts after having been shot twice in the right leg during an attempted armed robbery on Aug. 28 and only recently started running as they anticipated he would in training camp. Over the past four games, he has rushed for 348 yards and a 4.77 yards per carry average.

That sets up Washington’s play-action attack. But here’s the twist: With Wentz, the Commanders attempted the third most such throws compared to eighth most under Heinicke. With Wentz’s stronger arm, they believe they can use more of the field -- but that’s assuming he gets the ball out on time and doesn’t take sacks like he did earlier in the season (23, tied for league-high).

In the next two weeks, Washington faces two weak run defenses in the Browns (25th) and Cowboys, (22nd). Both teams also rank 21st and 20th, respectively, in yards per pass attempt against play action. Washington can run the ball well and loves play action.

What does this mean for Heinicke's future in Washington?

Heinicke will be a free agent after the season. It would not be surprising to see Washington re-sign him. But team sources say the Commanders still view him as a high-quality backup, one who is capable of helping the team win multiple games if he has to play.

But there's another factor: The franchise selected Sam Howell in the fifth round of the 2022 draft and like how he’s developed. Team sources say they liked Howell before the draft and, had they not traded for Wentz last offseason, might have picked him higher. Heinicke’s future here likely is tied more to Howell than Wentz.

It would be hard to let Heinicke walk, however. In the past two years, Washington has gone 12-11-1 when Heinicke starts.

But over the past two seasons, the offense ranks 21st in yards and 25th in points. And in this stretch, the Commanders are 1-11 in games when the opposition scores 24 or more points. In other words: They need more offense and more consistent play at quarterback. It’s why they pursued Wentz last year but were glad Heinicke was still around.

How does the move affect the locker room?

Washington’s players have long rallied around Heinicke. However, more than anything, they want to win.

Rivera met with team leaders to gather their input but also to explain why he made the change. As the coach of the Carolina Panthers, Rivera always had Cam Newton and didn’t need to worry about such a decision. But he said he's planned for it over the past year or two in Washington.

There have been years in which Washington lacked strong leadership. That’s not the case this season with McLaurin and defensive tackle Jon Allen, among others.

While teammates respect Heinicke, love his story and respond well to him, they were aware of his shortcomings last season. And those flaws -- arm strength among them -- haven’t changed.

If Rivera had benched Heinicke once Wentz was healthy, there might have been pushback. The team had won five of its first six games under Heinicke; he led clutch drives.

Over its past four games, Washington is 1-2-1 and ranks 19th in points scored per game. Wentz doesn't have issues in the locker room, but he will have to produce.

It also helps that Wentz and Heinicke have a good relationship. Wentz praised him often, and Heinicke was one of the first off the bench to greet Wentz after he threw a touchdown pass in Saturday's loss to the 49ers. Heinicke has a personality players embrace; Wentz is a Type A personality. But the only issue that will cause players to turn is if Wentz’s accuracy doesn’t improve from the first go-round and if he doesn’t produce.