“The third season is when you take another step,” Rivera said in January. “And hopefully we did things with the other positions that would allow us to find the guy to set up and get ready to roll. … This is the important thing on which we must decide.
Plug and play was Washington’s approach. Commanders traded for Carson Wentz in March, believing they had built a roster that could protect him and provide plenty of playmakers. They didn’t believe the transition would be hiccup-free, but believed Wentz, as a experienced player, could be successful – and that he might not need the extra time a rookie would have to adjust to the NFL.
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But now, five games into the Carson Wentz experiment, the Commanders are 1-4 and on the verge of implosion as the rest of the NFC East overtakes them. The blame doesn’t rest entirely on Wentz’s shoulders, but the solutions to the commanders’ problems seem more elusive than ever.
“Be more consistent,” Rivera offered on Monday. “One thing we can’t do is have penalties — silly penalties. … We have to keep working on it. It’s interesting because when you put all the pieces you want together and put them there for that period of time, it starts to happen. And so we just have to keep working hard for it.
Washington’s fourth straight loss, a 21-17 buzzkill to the Tennessee Titans that went down two yards in the final 19 seconds, was a window into the Commanders’ conundrum. In spurts, Wentz is the quarterback they need, with his deep passing capable of creating big plays. But he and the team built around him have found new ways — self-inflicted ways — to lose each of the last four weeks.
“The disappointing part is you learn, ‘Okay, that’s what we did last week; we can’t do that. And when it’s something new, it’s frustration,” Rivera said. “We just fixed that, and now we have something there. It is this inconsistency that catches you.
Rivera’s frustration after the loss to the Titans was evident and seemed to intensify on Monday as he answered questions about the state of his team.
“We played well enough to win,” he said. “We just didn’t play regularly. … You give up a few big plays, then you miss a few opportunities. I know I’ve said it before, but it’s the truth.
A self-proclaimed optimist, Rivera rarely shows his anger publicly. But the last time he was so upset with his team’s play was at the start of 2020, in his first season on the job. Washington started 1-3 before Rivera decided to bench young quarterback Dwayne Haskins.
He said at the time the move was necessary for the growth of the rest of the team – and it worked. The NFC East was the dregs of the NFL that year, and two things helped Washington qualify for the playoffs: the return of Alex Smith after a horrific leg injury and the division’s poor play. Washington (7-9) became the fifth team to enter the playoffs with a losing record.
But the COs are in the same situation two years later, with no clear answer at quarterback and a roster stymied by its own mistakes. And this time, the NFC East is one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, pushing Washington further down a hole. The Giants and Cowboys are 4-1 and the 5-0 Eagles are the only undefeated team in the NFL.
“Quarterback,” Rivera said when asked why Washington’s divisional rivals are successful.
“The truth is, it’s a quarterback-run league,” he added. “And if you look at teams that have been able to sustain success, they’ve been able to build it around a specific quarterback.”
The Eagles do the trick. They benched Wentz and then traded him to build around Jalen Hurts, now one of the NFL’s most prolific quarterbacks.
Still, the Cowboys have won four straight games with Cooper Rush – an undrafted player they signed in 2017 and then To cut in 2020 – replacing the injured Dak Prescott.
“But they started with Dak, and they built around Dak, and the offense is built around Dak,” Rivera argued. “Their replacement is a very solid guy at what they do.”
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And in New York, the Giants struggled for years to build themselves around Daniel Jones. Last season they were the worst team in the NFC East. Now, despite a litany of injuries, they are enjoying success under freshman coach Brian Daboll. On Sunday, they upset the Green Bay Packers in London.
“I have no regrets for our quarterback,” Rivera said of Wentz, which appeared on the injury report Monday with a right shoulder problem. “I think our quarterback did some good things. There were a few days where he struggled. … [But] the way he played [Sunday], it just shows you what it’s capable of. We chose him because we believe in him.
In March, Rivera repeatedly said Wentz was wanted — but a recent report said COs first tried to trade for San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo. He said Wentz fits what the team is trying to do and could be the long-term answer at quarterback.
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“He has to work with these pieces. It’s like stepping into a new job,” Rivera said Monday. “The work is already there. … You walk in, and you’re the new guy. You have to teach everyone, right? You have to learn to work with everyone, you have to learn to do your job with everyone.
But as the commanders fly away, Rivera’s rebuilding runs out of time. The Year 3 jump hasn’t happened yet, and if Washington suffers another loss Thursday night in Chicago, any hopes could be dashed for good.