Ron Rivera was enlisted, on the advice of Joe Gibbs’ council of football elders, to lead a renaissance of Washington football, in the wake of devastation left by Bruce Allen and Jay Gruden. When he was hired, Rivera made it clear that he didn’t have patience for a five-year rebuild. Those of us who have stuck with the team through the many travails, torments and catastrophes of the Snyder era took heart that we would see speedy action to return the Washington Football Team to competitiveness.
The first season of the Rivera era saw what appeared to be a sudden turnaround on the defensive side of the ball, which inspired hope. However, that initial success was not sustained, and it became clear through 2020 and 2021 that to progress any further, the team would need to find a real quarterback to compete on offense.
To start the 2022 offseason, Rivera made a bold move for his next franchise QB, when he traded a 3rd and a conditional 2nd/3rd round draft pick to the Indianapolis Colts for Carson Wentz. In order to afford Wentz’s $28M cap hit, which the Commanders agreed to pay in full, the team had to make some difficult personnel decisions, which included releasing DL Matt Ioannidis and G Ereck Flowers and not re-signing DL Tim Settle and G Brandon Scherff. Without a doubt, Rivera had gone all in on Wentz as the key to taking the 7-10 Commanders to the next level in 2022.
In contrast to the skepticism of the national media, most Hogs Haven writers and a majority of comment posters expected that the addition of Wentz, combined with all the new weapons, would result in a significant boost to Washington’s offensive production. Despite my initial less than warm embrace of the Wentz trade, by the end of the preseason, none of the worst-case scenarios appeared to have materialized. Wentz appeared to be fitting in well into the locker room and Scott Turner’s offense, so I too started sipping the Kool-Aid (or is it Flavor Aid?)
Three years into Rivera’s less-than-five-year rebuild would seem to be about time to start forming a judgment about how it’s all going. In Years 1 and 2 you could argue that Rivera was working with the coaches, and some of the front office staff he inherited. By Year 3, however, the team has been largely remade by his own hand, including the offense, which has now been almost completely rebuilt around his handpicked starting QB.
With that in mind, I would like to have a look at how Year 3 of the rebuild is going, four games into the season.
QB Play – 2022 vs 2021
The general consensus is that Washington’s 2022 season will rise and fall on the play of Rivera’s handpicked starting QB. Therefore, it is only fitting to start with the focal point of the offensive rebuild.
It seems so long ago that many fans may have forgotten that Taylor Heinicke actually got off to a hot start when he was forced to step in to relieve the injured starter, Ryan Fitzpatrick, leading a significant contingent to call for him to keep the starting job. By the end of the season, however, his flaws were exposed, and it was clear that the team would need to find a new starter.
The first figure below compares the performance of 2022 starter Wentz to 2021 starter Heinicke through their first four games, as measured by ESPN’s Total QBR. Total QBR is an all-inclusive performance metric, encompassing all the ways a QB call help (passing, rushing, scoring) and hinder (interceptions, sacks) his team, which also takes game situation into account.
Wentz started the 2022 season about the same as his predecessor in terms of overall performance, before taking a nosedive in Weeks 3 and 4. Heinicke also fell back to earth after his hot start, starting with a 2-INT, 2-sack, 49% completion-percentage performance in Week 5 against Carolina. Therefore, it might be more appropriate to compare Wentz’s 2022 start to Heinicke’s full 2021 season, as I have done in the following table:
Through four games, Wentz has provided a boost to Washington’s offensive production in terms of passing yards and TDs. However, that has been offset by an increase in negative plays, resulting in a modest decline in overall performance relative to 2021, if QBR is to be believed.
Offense – 2022 vs 2021
Of course, there is more to offensive production than just QB play. In addition to the changes at QB, the Commanders’ offseason moves, and players returning from injury, resulted in substantial upgrades on paper to the offensive skill positions and what appeared to some HH writers (e.g. optimist1, optimist2, optimist3 ) as no change or only modest downgrades to the offensive line. How did that translate to production on the field?
Overall, through 4 games, the Commanders offense is about the same as 2021, despite significant anticipated upgrades at QB and WR and potentially impactful new additions at TE, and RB. Compared to the rest of the league, the WFT offense ranked in the high twenties in 2021, and it has dropped a few places in the ranks to start the 2021 season.
Let’s drill a bit deeper to see how the passing game, rushing game and OL play compared to last season.
The changes at QB and offensive skill positions have resulted in a modest increase of total passing production in 2022. However, in early games, there has also been an increase in sack yardage, and a drop in long completions after game 2, resulting in an actual decline in Net Yards Per Pass Attempt (NY/A).
In 2022, There has been an 18% drop in total rushing yards per game, a drop in rushing touchdowns (based on a small sample size to date), but only a 5% drop in yards per attempt. This means the Commanders have become slightly less efficient at running the ball in 2022. Most of the decline in rushing production is a result of running less and passing more.
Offensive Line Play
The biggest difference between the 2021 and 2022 offenses has been the offensive line play, as illustrated using ESPN’s Block Win Rate metrics. In 2021, the Football Team’s offensive line led the league in run blocking and was a top-10 unit in pass blocking. In 2022, it has fallen to bottom 3 in both categories. The dramatic decline in O-Line play is likely to be a major contributor to the drops in passing and rushing offense this season.
Defense – 2022 vs 2021
Note: You want to be ranked as low as possible (32nd is best) in all of these stats except 3rd down stops (1st is best).
Through the first four games of the season, the Commanders have allowed the 4th-most points in the NFL, and the 10th most yards. Both rankings reflect fairly modest declines in performance relative to 2021, meaning they went from bad to worse. The defense is also giving up an average of 0.3 more yards per play in 2022, which puts them around where they were last season, amongst the bottom tier of the league.
The one major improvement from 2021 is in 3rd-down efficiency. In 2021, opposing offenses converted 48.5% of third downs, which ranked 2nd-worst in the NFL. In 2022, the opponent’s third-down conversion rate is down to 30.9%, which ranks 4th best in the league. Before we get too excited about that, it could just mean that teams are converting more and scoring on earlier downs, since it is not reflecting as an improvement in overall production.
Note: Once again, a high rank is bad, except interceptions where 1st is best.
To start the 2022 season, the Commanders are giving up about the same yardage and about 25% more passing TDs than 2021. To make matters worse, interceptions per game are down, compared to 2021. The Football Team’s pass defense was the fifth-worst in the league in terms of Net Yards Per Attempt in 2021. They are doing slightly worse in 2022, allowing 7.1 NY/A, vs 68 in 2021, but are slightly better in the league ranking, in a tie for 7th place.
The 2021 season started with talk about the Football Team’s defense, led by Montez Sweat and Chase Young, breaking the 1984 Bears’ single season sack record. That prediction didn’t age particularly well.
The 2021 sack total of 38 equates to 2.24 sacks per game, which fell just shy of halfway to reaching the 1984 Bears’ sack rate of 4.5 per game, and was good for 17th in the NFL last season. Chase Young only contributed 1.5 of the team’s sacks before being lost to injury in Game 9.
The Commanders pressure rate and sack rate is nearly identical in 2022 to the disappointing 2021 season, with James Smith-Williams and Efe Obada starting in place of Young. One area where the pass rush has shown improvement through the early part of 2022 is in Pass Rush Win Rate (ESPN). How is it possible that the Commanders are doing better in that measure of pass rush success minus their marquee player? I’ll give you a hint. They should play Efe Obada more. A more results-oriented coach might make Young should compete for the starting job when he returns from injury.
The Football Team featured the seventh-best run defense in 2021, in terms of yards allowed per game and the eight-best in terms of Yards per Attempt (Y/A). They have slipped a little in 2022, falling to the middle of the pack in both categories. They have, however, improved in stopping rushing touchdowns in the early going this season.
Defense vs. Positions
Since the world was young, it seems that Washington has struggled to defend against tight ends and running backs catching passes out of the back field. The secondary play has also been an issue over the last two seasons. Has there been any improvement in any of these categories in Rivera’s third season?
Washington was the fifth-best team at stopping the run in 2021, and has dropped slightly to 12th best in 2022. They have held steady at 10th best at preventing rushing TDs in both seasons. Despite common impressions, they were also pretty good at limiting yardage of backs catching passes in 2021, but have regressed considerably in that department this season.
They were the second-worst team at preventing receiving TDs by running backs in 2021, and don’t seem to be much better in 2022.
The Football Team gave up the seventh-most yardage to tight ends in 2021, but were seventh best at preventing them from scoring. They are giving up fewer Yards per Target to tight ends so far this season, but are allowing more scores.
If you thought that Washington’s secondary has played poorly over the last two seasons, you were right. They have been terrible at defending wide receivers, ranking no better than 7th worst in the league in Yards per Target or TDs per Target allowed in either season. In 2022, they are second-worst in TDs surrendered to wide receivers per passing attempt.
Defense – Explosive Plays
The overall defensive stats tend to hide one particular area of vulnerability of the Commanders’ defense which seems to have emerged this season.
They seem to have developed a propensity to give up big passing plays. The run defense remains solid and has not changed with respect to containing large rushing gains. The passing defense, in contrast, has given up 17 plays of 20 or more yards through the first four games this season, which represents a 44% increase on a per game basis over 2021.
Sorry for the lack of ranking data. Processed data on explosive plays in 2022 is not easily available. I had to crunch the data manually in the Pro Football Reference Stathead database, which was very labor-intensive and I’m not doing it for the other 32 teams. The main point is that vulnerability to large passing gains has got alarmingly worse this season.
The third year of a rebuild is when we should expect to see results. Rivera and his defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, in particular, have shown a disturbing tendency to try to shift blame for the team’s shortcomings to their players. That’s really a self-defeating tactic, since all fingers point directly back at the men in charge. The roster is now almost entirely composed of Rivera’s handpicked players, who have been working under direction of his coaching staff. If they are not up to his standards, then it’s an indictment of his talent evaluation performance. If they aren’t learning their roles, then he is failing to coach them.
The results through four games provide little indication of improvement in 2022. The focal point of the rebuilding effort this offseason was upgrading the QB position. While Carson Wentz got off to a good start in his first two games as a Commander, he was not quite up to the level of his predecessor. Since then, his play has tanked. While he is able to throw a better long ball than Taylor Heinicke, any benefits that provides have been offset by the negative plays resulting from holding onto the ball too long and poor decision making. On balance, he is slightly worse than Taylor Heinicke was in 2021.
It is important to note that Wentz has benefited from a better arsenal of offensive weapons than were available to Heinicke, with the addition of Jahan Dotson and a healthy Curtis Samuel, while having to play behind a significantly degraded offensive line. Of course, the price of adding Wentz had a lot to do with the decision to part ways with 2021 OL stalwarts Brandon Scherff and Ereck Flowers. Once again, the net result of Rivera’s team building effort has been a modest decline in offensive efficiency.
On the defensive side, the story is pretty similar. The rushing defense remains one of the strengths of the team and has suffered only modest declines in 2022. The passing defense remains among the bottom tier of the league and, if anything, appears to be getting worse. Overall, the passing defense is bottom 10 unit, no matter how you look at it. It remains the worst in the league at preventing touchdowns and, this season, has developed a worrying tendency to give up big plays.
The one bright spot on defense, for those looking for a silver lining, is that the abysmal third down stop rate that we witnessed in 2021 has been cleaned up and is now looking very respectable. Unfortunately, that has not translated to overall defensive production. Perhaps that’s because teams are converting and scoring more on earlier downs – something to look at in future.
The pass rush, which has benefited from the heaviest investment of draft capital of any position group over the past decade, remains pedestrian compared to other units around the league.
Interestingly, despite popular perceptions that tight ends and pass catching backs are our Achilles’ heels, our biggest weakness is actually covering wide receivers. Don’t get me wrong. We aren’t great at covering backs and tight ends. We’re just much worse at covering wideouts.
Four games into the crucial third year of his rebuild, I would give Rivera’s efforts a solid D. The big move of the 2022 offseason might represent a major improvement over the QB room he inherited (2020 QBR : Alex Smith 28.2; Dwayne Haskins 24.8), but failed to move the needle relative to his 2021 back-up thrust into the starting role. The failure to upgrade the QB position, combined with the erosion of offensive line play, seems to have negated any impact of the upgrades to other offensive skill positions.
The defense is also just treading water through the first four games, but is showing worrying signs of a potential for major regression, most notably the stagnating pass defense and the increased tendency to give up big plays.
Of course, Ron Rivera does have a well-established history of slow starts. It remains possible that he could make major adjustments to breathe some life into the team in the second half of the season. However, he had better act soon before the chance to improve on his 7-win high mark in Washington evaporates.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to James Dorsett for his usual expert editorial assistance and for turning this one around in a hurry.
What would be your top mid-season adjustment to turn things around for the Commanders?
This poll is closed
Too early for that – Wentz just needs time to figure it out
Get on the phone to Ereck Flowers
Bench Wentz, game plan around Hienicke’s strengths
Play the rookie!
Lean on the running game
Start St. Juste outside, move Fuller to slot or FS, give Castro-Fields a shot
Fire Del Rio
Fire Scott Turner
Ride it out, make the most of the first pick in the draft
What do I care? I’m a Ravens fan.