Commanders at a quarterback crossroads despite playoff positioning still intact

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Carson Wentz and Taylor Heinicke couldn’t have had more different journeys to the NFL. Wentz, a former No. 2 overall pick, entered the league as the kind of physically gifted quarterback that teams clamor to find each year.

Heinicke is another story, of course. Undersized and undrafted, he had to latch on as a free agent.

But different paths have led both to the same place. With two games left in the season, Commanders coach Ron Rivera must decide whether to start Wentz or Heinicke after he played both in Saturday’s 37-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. 

No matter who gets the nod, one will be left disappointed. 

“We’re both mature,” Wentz said. “We’ve both seen a lot in this league.” 

In terms of the standings, not much has changed for the Washington Commanders after Saturday’s defeat to the San Francisco 49ers. The team remains the seventh seed with a 7-7-1 record. But the dynamic that Wentz, Heinicke and the rest of the Commanders now find themselves in very much did. 

By benching Heinicke in the fourth quarter, Rivera put the Commanders at a quarterback crossroads ahead of next week’s game against the Cleveland Browns. Washington’s playoff fate could come down to whoever the coach decides to put under center. Rivera said he’ll make the decision early in the week after reviewing the tape. 

Both quarterbacks played relatively well Saturday, despite the loss. Heinicke completed 13 of 18 passes for 166 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, but his back-to-back turnovers in the fourth led Rivera to switch to Wentz. Wentz finished with 123 yards and a touchdown on 12 of 16 passing. 

Technically, the Commanders brought in Wentz in the offseason with the idea that he could lift Washington exactly in the kinds of do-or-die situations the team now faces down the stretch. But at the same time, there was a reason that Rivera gave Heinicke the starting job even after Wentz returned from a broken finger earlier this season. 

The quarterbacks each come with their own strengths and flaws. So much rides on Rivera’s decision.

“It is about the whole picture,” Rivera said. “As we go through this, we will go and talk about all these different things. And there’s a lot that will go into that. It’s not going to be a knee-jerk (decision). 

“It’s going to be something that I really do believe, at the end of the day, gives us the best chance to win football games and get into the playoffs and see what happens.”

If Rivera turns to Wentz, who started the first six games of the season, the quarterback will get a shot at redemption, not just for the beginning of this season, but for how his time as the starter in Indianapolis ended last year.

Wentz needed to help Indianapolis win one of its final two games to make the postseason. Instead, the 29-year-old failed to top 200 yards in back-to-back losses. The disappointed Colts traded him to Washington in the offseason, parting ways after just a year. 

One ripple effect Rivera likely will have to manage if he goes with Wentz: the impact on the locker room. 

Though Wentz came with baggage — reports in Philadephia and Indianapolis painted the signal-caller as a lackluster leader — the quarterback has seemingly connected well with Washington teammates throughout the year. 

But the gritty Heinicke remains a popular locker-room presence — and the Commanders seem to feed on Heinicke’s energy when he’s on the field.

“Anybody in the media knows me and Taylor Heinicke are best friends, good friends, so personally it’s tough, but it’s not my call obviously,” tight end Logan Thomas said. “So moving forward, it’s just trying to keep everybody level-headed because we need to have everybody to make this run.” 

Thomas noted there are stylistic differences between Wentz and Heinicke, adding “there are some things that we do with Taylor that wouldn’t work with Carson.” 

With Heinicke, the Commanders have shifted into primarily a run-first offense. In theory, that would stand to benefit Wentz, as well. But because of the deficit Washington faced in Saturday’s loss, the Commanders stuck to mostly passing the ball when Wentz was in the game.

Still, Rivera said it was “very important” to see Wentz in his first action in more than two months. He praised Wentz’s command of the offense, adding he thought he stood tall in the pocket and made quick decisions. 

Now, Rivera will have to evaluate what’s best for Washington against the Browns. 

“If they feel like they need to put Carson in there, OK,” Heinicke said. “I just come to the facility every day, work hard, try and be the best I can be. I’ll leave it at that.”