Who’s to Blame for Washington Commanders’ Train Wreck?

Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera’s ill-advised decision to start Carson Wentz at quarterback in the loss to the Cleveland Browns last Sunday — with the playoffs on the line and when Wentz had played two series in the previous 11 weeks — was symptomatic of a once-proud organization that has turned into a train wreck.

From his mishandling of the quarterback situation to his naivete regarding his team’s playoff status, I’d fire Rivera if I was in charge. I’d factor in that this is his third straight losing season, and the Browns’ loss was the third consecutive down the stretch for a team that was in playoff position, so my decision to move on from Rivera would be further solidified.

The Commanders were holding the NFC’s last wild-card spot and needed to beat an already eliminated Browns team and then the Dallas Cowboys in order to hold off a host of teams, including the Green Bay Packers. Wentz’s disappointing play and injury problems in his latter years in Philadelphia and then Indianapolis led to the trade to Washington for three Day 2 draft picks (a second and two third-rounders) last March.

It was too much to pay for a quarterback who once was promising but had been beaten down by injuries and lackluster play. The doomed trade was executed by Commanders GM Martin Mayhew, with Washington’s meddling owner Daniel Snyder surely signing off on the deal.

Rivera had little choice but to start the highly-paid Wentz early on in the season. After going 2-4 in his first six starts, Wentz suffered a broken finger and went on injured reserve. Taylor Heinicke stepped in and led the team into playoff contention with a 5-3-1 record during the next nine weeks.

Rivera kept Heinicke in the lineup even when Wentz had recovered from his injury. Heinicke was facing the 49ers with the league’s best defense two weeks ago when Rivera yanked him in the fourth quarter as the Commanders were within two scores.

Wentz directed a scoring drive on one of his two series against the 49ers and threw a bunch of short passes against a prevent defense on the last drive as time expired. With his team going 0-2-1 in the previous three games but still holding the NFC’s No. 7 seed, Rivera opted to start Wentz in Week 17. He said he was “looking for a little bit of a spark.”

Some spark that turned out to be. Wentz proceeded to have a terrible game against Cleveland (16-of-28, 143 passing yards, no TDs, three interceptions for a dreadful 31.4 passer rating, along with being sacked three times). The Commanders scored only three points on six second-half possessions, and the 10 points scored in the loss were lower than the total in any of Heinicke’s nine starts. Yet as Wentz struggled mightily, Rivera didn’t pull him and give Heinicke a chance to save the Commanders’ season.

In his post-game media session, Rivera was surprised when told the Commanders would be out of playoff contention if the Packers won later that day. “We can be eliminated?” he responded. Rivera also doubled down on his decision to start Wentz, saying he had no regrets. Yet, he wouldn’t commit to Wentz as the starter in the season finale against the Cowboys.

I tend to doubt Rivera will be fired next week because the Commanders are a rudderless ship with the NFL’s worst owner in Snyder. I have spent enough time with Snyder during my years in the league and observed for the past 23 years how he runs his team, so I know he’s not a good ambassador for the NFL, and I believe Mayhew is virtually powerless in a Snyder-led organization.

I think Snyder is likely too distracted by the various scandals, including alleged sexual harassment/misconduct and alleged financial impropriety permeating himself and the organization that has resulted in calls for him to sell the team. He probably doesn’t want to have to deal with a coaching search and paying off Rivera for the reported two years remaining on his contract (along with paying his assistants under contract).

If indeed Snyder is motivated to sell the team — which could be a long, drawn-out process if he ever goes through with it — a new owner would want to make the call on his or her head coach (along with the GM). So that can buy time for Mayhew and Rivera to draft a talented quarterback with their projected mid-first-round pick in a good draft class for signal-callers while perhaps adding a free agent as a bridge QB (Jimmy Garoppolo?). Wentz is not going to get it done, and Heinicke remains viable as a good backup, although he’s a pending free agent who could look to move on from the dysfunction in Washington.

The team has a playoff-caliber defense (No. 4 ranked this season, and that was without pass-rusher Chase Young as he recovered from his ACL injury). In addition, there is enough talent on offense that the Commanders can be a playoff team next season with more consistent play at quarterback.

Furthermore, until the team is sold (again, Snyder could make the price tag so high that it drags out for years), what reputable coach would want to work for an owner with all kinds of baggage who is a well-known meddler and who is perhaps headed out the door?

Rivera is likable and has done a lot of good work in the community during his coaching tenures in Carolina and Washington. He’s had a long and often successful NFL career as a player, assistant coach and head coach of a Super Bowl team with the Panthers. He understands the dynamics of the coaching profession and that winning is paramount.

As opposed to his lack of understanding of the Commanders’ playoff status after the Browns’ loss, Rivera won’t be surprised by whatever happens with his coaching job moving forward.

He deserves to be on the hot seat entering Black Monday. But he actually could survive a season that will end with a meaningless game against rival Dallas after he and his team were booed off the field following the loss to a team that similarly has a PR nightmare on its hands in the form of disgraced QB Deshaun Watson.

Rivera is part and parcel of this train wreck, but Snyder is the engineer. Being eliminated on Sunday and fading late in the season are just part of the story. This franchise gave football fans in Washington success stories like Bobby Beathard in the front office and legends such as coach Joe Gibbs, Darrell Green, John Riggins and the Hogs.

Restoring the luster of this team requires a change of leadership with the coaching staff and management but, more importantly, in ownership as soon as possible for things to truly change for the better.

Jeff Diamond is a former Minnesota Vikings general manager and Titans team president. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. You can follow him on Twitter at @jeffdiamondnfl.

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