Carson Wentz to take over for Taylor Heinicke as Commanders QB?

Taylor Heinicke is probably the biggest reason the Washington Chiefs are in the playoff race right now. He solved an erratic offense when he took over for an injured Carson Wentz in Week 7. He energized a down locker room. The Commanders, then 1-4, went on a 5-1 run.

However, none of that ever seemed to fully win over coach Ron Rivera, who appears to be on the verge of extinguishing the Heinicke era. And if he does, as he promised, it won’t be a “knee-jerk” decision.

It is a decision that has been building for some time.

If Rivera turns the reins over to Wentz for the final two games of the season — must-win home games against the Cleveland Browns (1 p.m. ET Sunday on FOX) and the Dallas Cowboys — it won’t just be Heinicke’s two. fourth-quarter turnovers in a 37-20 loss at San Francisco on Saturday. It won’t even be about the Commanders’ 0-2-1 slide that has them clinging to a playoff spot by just half a game.

If Rivera makes the switch after meeting with his coaches Monday, it will be about “the big picture,” he said. And this picture shows that there hasn’t been a time over the past nine weeks when Rivera has looked or sounded completely comfortable with Heinicke as the starter. For a while it looked like he was just waiting for the chance to remind everyone why Wentz was still his man.

And make no mistake: Wentz, 29, has always been Rivera’s guy. He made that clear in mid-October when he angrily yelled “bulls–t” at reports that he was against the offseason trade with the Colts that brought Wentz to Washington for two third-round picks. Don’t forget, Rivera had 15 games from Heinicke last season when the Commanders went 7-10 and their quarterback and team wilted. I wasn’t looking for more.

That’s why the Chiefs spent the offseason looking for a new quarterback. They settled on Wentz, and it looked good early. He threw seven touchdown passes in his first two games and averaged 325 yards. Yes, there were mistakes, three interceptions, but the Commanders scored 28 and 27 points and averaged 393 yards. It was the best look of their offense all year.

The next three games with Wentz were terrible. And then there was that day, after a 21-17 loss at Tennessee, when Rivera said the “quarterback” was the reason the Chiefs had fallen behind other teams in the NFC East, ironically after Wentz threw for 359 yards and two touchdowns with just one interception. The coach was trying to make the point that other teams have been building around a franchise quarterback for several years, while he was only in his fifth game with Wentz. But the sound was doomed. Rivera even apologized to Wentz and the team.

Still, there was still no real indication that Rivera was contemplating a quarterback change until Wentz fractured a finger on his throwing hand in Chicago on Oct. 13. Even after Heinicke started rolling and his teammates seemed to love him and the Commanders returned to the playoffs. race, Rivera’s praise of Heinicke always sounded tepid, like he was just waiting for the bubble to burst.

Maybe he was just being pragmatic or trying to be fair to Wentz. But there were other problems as well. Heinicke’s offense never seemed to be firing on all cylinders the way it did through the first two weeks of the season. The Commanders averaged 20.4 points and 346.9 yards per game during Heinicke’s career, before the San Francisco game, and Rivera always felt they could do much better. Heinicke only threw for 211.6 yards per game.

The QB also lived a little too close to the edge for Rivera’s liking. Yes, Wentz had a penchant for making terrible decisions, as evidenced by his six interceptions in seven games. But he was still learning a new offense. The 6-foot-5, 237-pounder also had a bigger arm and was more accurate than Heinicke, who seemed to throw two or three passes per game well over his intended receiver’s head.

That’s why the door has always been open to Wentz. Even last week, following the Commanders’ 20-12 loss to the Giants, which was just Heinicke’s second loss in eight starts, Rivera admitted there had been “talk” of a quarterback change and it was “something that, to be quite Frank, I have to think about at some point.”

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when word leaked Saturday morning that he had a plan to trade the quarterback in San Francisco if and when Heinicke struggled, nor should it have been a surprise to anyone when he did do. .

Ironically, Heinicke was actually “really good” Saturday, according to Rivera. He was 8-for-11 for 89 yards and a touchdown in the first half and threw another touchdown pass early in the second. But Heinicke’s fumble and interception on his first two throws in the fourth quarter presented “an opportunity for us to see where Carson was at,” Rivera said. And after Wentz went 12-for-16 for 123 yards and a touchdown in the final nine minutes, Rivera said, “He did a good job.”

“He had a good command of what we were doing,” Rivera said. “He stood tall in the pocket and got the ball out quick a couple of times and threw some good balls.”

Was he much better than Heinicke? Not really. But Rivera sure seemed like he was more comfortable with what Wentz did.

Not that any of this is new for Heinicke, an undrafted free agent in 2015 who has had an uphill battle to be a starting quarterback from the start. It took him six years, five NFL teams and a stint in the XFL just to get his first real shot. So he meant it when he said, “I get it. I’ve heard things like that all my life.”

Taylor Heinicke on the journey from the XFL to the NFL

Taylor Heinicke on the journey from the XFL to the NFL

Commanders QB Taylor Heinicke joins Colin Cowherd to discuss his journey from the XFL to the NFL and what it took to get where he is today.

He knows the reality is that performance is never the only thing that matters with a quarterback. He knows Rivera is invested in Wentz. As the coach explained out loud in October, “I’m the shitty guy who pulled out the pieces of paper, who looked at the analytics, who looked at the tape” to Wentz before making the deal. And then he was the one who gave the green light to the $28.3 million that Commanders owner Dan Snyder has spent on Wentz this season. He was the one who handed Wentz the keys to the offense and his team.

So don’t be surprised in the next couple of days when Rivera does it again and puts his team’s playoff destiny back in the hands of the man he wanted as his quarterback all along. Wentz is his guy and he was always going to get another chance to lead the Chiefs. Even Heinicke seemed to understand that it was always a matter of time.

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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 on Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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