There’s one player – and only one player – whose insertion into the lineup coincides precisely with the Washington Commanders current 6-1 run. It is not Taylor Heinicke, who didn’t take the field until one game into this run. It isn’t Brian Robinson, who began his extraordinary comeback from gunshot wounds a week before the run started. It is a 31-year journeyman, who began the season on the PUP list. He was on the roster to provide deep depth at the center position. It is Tyler Larsen.
Now, I am not about to claim that Tyler Larsen is an amazing undiscovered gem. In many ways, Larsen is a fairly typical NFL journeyman. He is a big strong man who has average mobility at best. Pro Football Focus ranks him toward the bottom of all starting NFL centers, especially in terms of pass protection, where he ranks 31st out of 32. He doesn’t blow people off the ball in the run game, like Philadelphia’s Jason Kelce. He doesn’t effortlessly handle pass rushers, the way Miami’s Dwight Stevenson (the greatest center who ever played) used to. But Larsen is usually where he is supposed to be, putting his big frame in the way of defenders, and that, of late, has been enough.
Tyler Larsen was never supposed to be playing serious minutes for the Washington Commanders. The plan, dating back to Ron Rivera’s arrival in DC, was for Washington to re-sign free agent stud guard Brendan Scherff, and then see if his running mate, Chase Roullier would be willing to take a team-friendly deal to play center. If not, mobile rookie draft pick Keith Ismael would get the first shot at taking over the center spot.
That all changed when Roullier steadily developed into an upper echelon center, and Scherff made it clear he had little interest in re-signing. So Roullier was signed to a long-term deal and Scherff was allowed to walk. Ismael began splitting his time between center and guard.
Tyler Larsen has been pivotal to the Commanders’ recent success.
Larsen arrived in the 2021 off-season. Initially, he just appeared to be one more Carolina Panther castoff – an undrafted free agent out of Utah State who had been a backup through most of his career. But it became apparent in training camp that Rivera and Scott Turner preferred Larsen to Ismael as Roullier’s backup. He entered the lineup when Roullier went down midway through the 2021 season, and almost immediately got hurt himself.
Roullier was set to return to the lineup for 2022 and the Commanders said good-bye to Ismael. They knew Larsen wouldn’t be available for at least the first month of the season, but they had both Wes Schweitzer and Jon Toth on hand, just in case anything happened to Roullier before Larsen was ready.
Sure enough, it did. Roullier suffered his second major injury early this season. Schweitzer – who had been so good as a fill-in guard in 2020 – did not play a good game against Philadelphia. Since Toth had struggled mightily in pre-season, the team signed veteran Nick Martin to take over. Martin (brother of Dallas’ Zack Martin) had been a decent center for Houston, but he was brand new. He also struggled.
When Larsen was physically able to return, he stepped right into the starting lineup. And Washington has gone 6-1 with him as starting center.
When Washington lost to the Eagles in week 3 this season, Schweitzer was making his first (and only) start at center. Washington gained 240 total yards, averaging 3.2 per play. Seven weeks later, with Larsen, Washington generated 330 yards of offense and 4.1 yards per play against those same Eagles.
Of course it wasn’t all attributable to Larsen. Heinicke and Robinson were the most obvious changes from the week 3 matchup. Logan Thomas and Trai Turner had played week 3 but were clearly hobbled. They were healthier in week 10. And the defense, which was abused in the first game, pushed the Eagles around in the second. All those things contributed.
And so did Tyler Larsen.
Larsen’s not just a veteran. He’s a veteran with plenty of experience in this offense. Fans who mock Ron Rivera for recycling through so many old Panthers might remember that for a position like center, which generally organizes line assignments and makes blocking calls, that kind of experience can be a real positive.
In the most important drive of the season – the final 2:39 against Indianapolis – Larsen’s workmanlike value was again on display. To be clear, this drive was mostly Heinicke, and a sensational catch by Terry McLaurin. But Larsen is there, picking Yannick Ngakoue on a stunt early on to allow Heinicke to pick up a few crucial yards. He is effectively blocking DeForest Buckner on the two most important plays – the 4th down pass to Curtis Samuel, and the bomb to McLaurin which preceded the winning touchdown. (Buckner, in case you don’t know, has been one of the best defensive tackles in the league over the past 5 seasons.)
Yeah, turning the season around has been a team effort, but when handing out credit, save a little bit for the man in the middle. Save a little bit for Tyler Larsen.