Sitting at 2-4 after the 2022 season's first six weeks, things looked bleak for the Washington Commanders. Their starting quarterback Carson Wentz, who they acquired in multi-pick trade this offseason from the Indianapolis Colts, fractured a finger on his throwing hand in Week 6. However, Taylor Heinicke's return to the starting role has brought the Commanders back to life with wins in three of his four starts since Week 7, including their 32-21 victory over the previously undefeated Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night that concluded Week 10. Now 5-5, Washington is only half a game behind the San Francisco 49ers for the NFC's seventh seed, the final wild card spot.
Thanks to that surge, head coach Ron Rivera has a difficult decision to make with Wentz eligible to return from injured reserve this week ahead of a game against the Houston Texans: go back to Wentz, the quarterback his front office invested multiple draft picks in, or stick with the hot hand of Heinicke, a player who has clearly won over the locker room during his 3-1 stretch as the starter this season.
The Commanders traded for Wentz in a deal with the Indianapolis Colts in the offseason. The teams exchanged second-round draft picks in the 2022 draft, and Washington also sent a third-round selection in 2022 and a conditional third in 2023. The conditional selection turns into a second-round pick if Wentz plays 70% of the snaps this season.
"You look at what is best for the team and that's how it has to be," Rivera said Tuesday, via ESPN. "There's a great saying, 'You treat everyone the same, you treat everyone fair but you treat everyone according to the team.' So the decision will be made about the team first and foremost. Whoever the starter is I will commit to them fully. I don't want them looking over their shoulder."
"You have to look at the momentum and what the mood of the team is," Rivera said when asked what will go into his decision. "There are a lot of factors."
Commanders by starting QB this season
|Wentz (Weeks 1-6)||Heinicke (Weeks 7-10)|
When Rivera takes a look into the mood of his team after Heinicke's run as the starter, he'll find that the Old Dominion alum is viewed in high regard by his teammates, including team captain Terry McLaurin.
"Taylor Heinicke is a guy who plays every play like it's his last, man," Commanders wide receiver Terry McLaurin said, via Yahoo Sports. "He gives us a chance to win football games just the way he wills, the way he plays. His toughness, he's willing to fight for the extra yards. He's going to give me 50-50 ball chances along with the other skill players. I think we rally around him, honestly. We're just so lucky to have a guy like that who has taken his opportunity and ran with it since he came with us in Tampa a few years ago. He just gives us a chance to win, and the heart he plays with I feel is infectious. I'm really happy to play with a guy like that because they elevate the guys around them."
Washington's stunning victory to knock off the NFL's last perfect team as 11-point underdogs was the second-largest upset win of the season. Only the Carolina Panthers' 21-3 defeat of Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a 13-point underdog was more jaw-dropping than what Washington did to Philadelphia on Monday. Heinicke's savvy sealed the deal, drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty on defensive end Brandon Graham on third-and-seven with 1:45 left in the game. Washington getting another first down drained enough time off the clock to where all the Eagles could do is try lateraling to each other on the game's final play, which resulted in a fumble recovery touchdown for the Commanders on the game's final play.
"I said it back in OTAs that we brought Carson in to be a starter, if my number is called, I'll be ready to go in," Heinicke said, via ESPN after Washington's Monday night win. "Whatever decision they want to make, let's go. If I'm backing up Carson next week, great. The biggest thing for me is let's just go win. Let's keep winning whether it means playing or not."
McLaurin had his season-highs in catches (8) and receiving yards (128) in the Commanders' win over the Eagles, who have the NFL's second-best pass defense (allowing 177.7 passing yards per game). He has seen a tremendous uptick in his production with Heinicke under center. McLaurin's 128-yard night made him the first receiver to have 80 or more receiving yards against Philadelphia this season. His play won't be the only factor in Rivera's decision, but having a quarterback on the field that can make the most of the three-year, $69.4 million extension the team give their top receiver this summer would seem to play a role in the final call.
"I've said this before, you paid the guy a lot of money in the offseason for a reason because he continues to make big plays," Heinicke said about McLaurin on Monday, via NFL.com. "So when we have one-on-one with Terry we like that. Whenever I see one-on-one with Terry I get excited and I have full confidence in him to win because he continues to do so."
Terry McLaurin by starting QB this season
|Wentz (Wks 1-6)||Heinicke (Wks 7-10)|
Being one of the Commanders' top leaders, McLaurin diplomatically didn't declare outright which quarterback he would like to see lead the Commanders offense in Week 11 against the Texans, but he made sure to highlight the fun Heinicke has brought back to the team.
"I think we have a chance to be very successful with him [Heinicke] or Carson [Wentz] honestly, and I know Coach Rivera and the coach staff is going to put the best guy in the situation to help us win games," McLaurin said. "But what he's done the last few weeks and the rollercoaster ride we've been on has been awesome."