Is Ron Rivera encouraging failure in the Washington Commanders?
By Jonathan Eig
I’m going to admit something. I didn’t watch this week’s Washington Commanders – Dallas Cowboys football game. At least, not the way I usually watch, all by myself, pen and paper in hand.
I was traveling, and just caught a piece of the game, along with a bunch of loud Cowboys fans, in the Atlanta airport. As it happens, the piece I saw was the end of the first half, and had I been by myself, I would have been screaming at the screen.
To refresh your memory, Washington was trailing 12-7, and had the ball with 64 seconds left and three timeouts on their own 25. And they essentially gave up on the game right then and there. They ran on 1st down. JD McKissic picked up three yards. That’s OK.
They did not call a timeout. That – and I cannot say this strongly enough – is NOT OK.
By the time they ran the next play – a short pass to Logan Thomas – there were just 26 seconds left in the half. They would convert the 3rd down, but since they were now left with just 22 seconds and more than thirty yards away from even a long field goal attempt, they were forced to throw deep. Rather predictably, Wentz’s bomb was intercepted.
The half ended with the Commanders still trailing. They would never regain the lead.
Is Ron Rivera inspiring failure in the Commanders?
With more than a minute to go and with time outs, a trailing team has to try to score. Ron Rivera did not. This was painfully reminiscent of his decisions to essentially give up at the end of the Washington-Arizona game in the second week of his first season in Washington. In that game, he was trailing late and he opted not to call time outs, as virtually every other coach would have done, and let the Cardinals simply run the clock down to the point where the game was over.
To be fair, the game was probably over anyway. It would have taken a couple of unlikely events for Washington to have come back in that 2020 game. But the point is – they didn’t even try. When asked about it after the game, Rivera said he was worried about getting players injured.
This time, against the Cowboys, I don’t think he was worried about getting players hurt. He seemed to be worried about giving the ball back to Dallas late in the half. It seems pretty apparent that the Washington head coach, now well into his third year at the helm, does not have enough confidence in his offense to get a 1st down, or in his defense to stop anyone.
Those opinions may be justified. But how do you build a team that keeps fighting – that refuses to quit – when you essentially quit on games in difficult situations? How do players respond to that?
I’ll give you a few examples of how they have responded this year. We’ve been beating up on the defense early this season, so I am going to focus right now on the offense.
The Washington Commanders averaged 4.2 yards per play on Sunday. That was the lowest figure in the league this week. It is miserable. The last time a team averaged less than 4.2 for a season was a decade ago, when the Arizona Cardinals averaged 4.1 yards per play. The Cardinals used four different starting quarterbacks that season. Kevin Kolb was probably the best. LaRod Stephens-Howling, and his 356 yards, led the team in rushing. This was one of the worst offenses this century.
If that’s not enough for you, how about this. Two rookie quarterbacks made their NFL debuts as replacements this week. 4th round draft pick Bailey Zappe, New England’s third quarterback had to come in as an injury replacement. Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett also replaced an ineffective Mitch Trubisky. Both rookies out-rated Washington’s $28 million dollar QB Carson Wentz. Kenny Pickett, who threw three 3 interceptions, still outperformed Wentz (who threw 2) because he also managed a 9.2 yards-per-attempt number, more than twice Wentz’s anemic 4.0.
Wentz’s Pro Football Focus grade last year in Indianapolis was 70.9. PFF grades are not perfect, but they are a pretty good standard for comparing players. Wentz’s grade so far this season in 64.8 (and that’s before this latest horrendous performance.) It dropped to 60.3 after Sunday’s loss.
That is very consistent with the coaching staff’s track record with acquired free agents. They almost always regress under the Washington Commanders current coaches. Charles Leno Jr, Andrew Norwell, Trai Turner, and Curtis Samuel all have PFF grades this season that are about ten points lower than what they achieved in their last season with their previous teams. Ten points in PFF system is substantial. All of these players have come to Washington and gotten worse.
Logan Thomas is the one exception – he has a current rating about one point higher than he had when he came to Washington.
Even Washington’s home-grown players – Terry McLaurin, Chase Roullier, and Antonio Gibson – have PFF grades which are significantly lower than they had as rookies. They seem to be regressing the longer they are exposed to this coaching staff.
(BTW – Washington’s three defensive starters who came as free agents – Kendall Fuller, William Jackson III, and Bobby McCain – currently have PFF grades that are astonishingly lower than they had with their previous teams. They are on average 17 POINTS LOWER.)
Washington has suffered a couple of injuries this year, but the offense has been pretty healthy. They have their starting quarterback, unlike Dallas, who has scored 20 or more three straight weeks with a backup. They have their full complement of receivers. They are missing one offensive lineman, as is Dallas. And still, the longer they play, the worse they seem to get.
Dallas has a good defense. They had given up an average of 18.3 points per game coming into the contest against Washington. The Commanders managed ten, fewest in the league this week; including Chicago and Carolina.
At previous points in the past two years, I have attributed this offensive failure to talent, or to scheme, or to bad luck. After watching the end of the first half against Dallas, I am beginning to wonder if the problem is more elemental. I wonder if the current coaching staff is actually instilling an expectation of failure which is being reflected all to clearly on the field.