Commanders restore Carson Wentz as starting QB vs. Browns

ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Commanders have turned back to quarterback Carson Wentz in their fight for a playoff berth.

The team announced Wednesday that Wentz will start in place of Taylor Heinicke when the Commanders (7-7-1) host the Cleveland Browns (6-9) on Sunday.

Wentz had started the first six games this season before breaking his right ring finger in an Oct. 13 win over the Chicago Bears. He was placed on injured reserve and did not return to the active roster until Dec. 17. Heinicke started nine games, leading the team to a 5-3-1 record.

However, Washington has gone 0-2-1 in its past three games. Although they moved the ball well with Heinicke, the Commanders have ranked 26th in red zone offense and 20th in points per game over his eight full starts.

Wentz replaced Heinicke in the fourth quarter of Saturday's 37-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Wentz completed 12 of 16 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown.

Commanders coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday that he was looking for a "spark" to their offense.

"The biggest thing is he's more comfortable in what we're doing, and that was evident in the game," Rivera said. "He handled situations well, got the ball out a couple times hot, threw some really nice balls. His decision-making was very quick. He got a reset. He had the opportunity to heal up, look and feel better."

Running back Brian Robinson said, "We can use some type of change or something to spark our offense. It'll be nice to have something new come to the offense."

Wentz said he isn't focused on trying to provide a spark.

"I try not to think too much on that," Wentz said. "I try to play the play every snap, whatever [offensive coordinator Scott] Turner wants to call, execute and go on to the next. We have a solid group of guys. They can be explosive in a variety of ways."

Rivera said he talked to a handful of players, most of them team leaders, to let them know what he was thinking and why he was making a move while also taking their input. He informed the entire team of the quarterback change in a meeting Wednesday morning.

Heinicke had used his mobility and penchant for clutch throws and late-game drives to lead the Commanders to wins over the Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts along with a tie against the New York Giants. He has thrown 12 touchdowns to six interceptions while being sacked 19 times in his nine starts, with his ability to escape pressure enabling him to be sacked less.

But with the Commanders struggling to finish drives of late and a belief that Wentz's increased familiarity with the offense could lead to quicker decisions, Washington opted for this move.

Washington traded two third-round picks -- one in 2022 and another in 2023 -- and swapped second-round picks in April to acquire Wentz from Indianapolis. He entered the season as the clear starter, something even Heinicke acknowledged during a spring news conference.

Wentz, the No. 2 pick in 2016, needed to learn a new offense for the first time in his career. He had played in the same system during his first five seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and last season with the Colts.

In Wentz's first two starts, Washington scored a combined 55 points. But in the next four, the Commanders managed only 47. He has thrown 11 touchdowns to six interceptions and has been sacked 23 times. He was better Sunday.

"By no means do I have it all figured out, but I'm trying to understand and see it from a different perspective," Wentz said. "I've been able to understand it deeper and hopefully recall it quicker."

Tight end Logan Thomas, who credited Heinicke for playing well, said defenses have to honor Wentz's arm more. Thomas also said he noticed a difference in Wentz on Saturday compared to earlier this season

"His timing is a little different," Thomas said. "The ball is coming out of his hand at the right time or at an earlier time. Instead of processing, he's just playing."

Wentz's contract contains two more years but no more guaranteed money. If Washington opts to keep him around, it could restructure his deal or pay him $26.7 million in 2023. Heinicke is a free agent after the season.

Heinicke became a fan favorite after arriving in Washington in December 2020 as a fourth quarterback who could fill in if the other three were sidelined by COVID-19. Before then, he was living with his sister and taking classes to finish his degree at Old Dominion.

He ended up starting the team's playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that season and won over teammates with his daring style of play and pylon-diving touchdown runs.

Washington signed Heinicke to a two-year extension that offseason. He started 15 games in 2021, after Ryan Fitzpatrick suffered a season-ending hip injury in Week 1 and went 7-8.

The Commanders have a 12-11-1 record under Heinicke the past two seasons. They are 2-6 under anyone else.

"It sucks," Heinicke said. "Every guy in this locker room should feel like they should start. If they don't then you shouldn't be in this league. ... The only thing I can do is control what I can control and right now that's to be the best backup and try and help Carson prepare any way I can."