Riverboat Ron’s gamble on Wentz is a move that he had to make

Riverboat Ron is at it again.

With the possibility of snagging the NFC’s final playoff spot in the wind, Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera is rolling the dice by re-inserting Carson Wentz as his starting quarterback and benching Taylor Heinicke.

Crunch time desperation? Playing the hot hand? Check. Check.

Bottom line, it’s the move that Rivera had to make about now, seeking a spark while the season is hanging by a thread.

Of course, Wentz, idling on injured reserve for several weeks while healing a fractured ring finger, is back in the position that was envisioned last spring when Washington traded a package of draft picks to get him from the Indianapolis Colts. He was supposed to be the long-awaited answer that Rivera has sought at the game’s most important position.

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So, good for Wentz. After once appearing to be one of the NFL’s young, future quarterback stars during his early years in Philadelphia, he has yet another chance to prove his worth after regressing to the level of mediocrity. That prove-it theme came with him to Washington, his third team in three years, and now it’s back in make-or-break splendor – a year after Wentz failed to put Indianapolis over the top when confronted by a similar, win-to-get-in situation.

He’ll get back into the starting lineup on New Year’s Day … which in some ways may feel like something out of the movie Groundhog Day.

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That the bottom fell out for Wentz in this situation last year in his one season with the Colts – who lost to the Raiders and Jaguars during the final two weeks to miss the playoffs – provides a double heaping of caution. Then again, Rivera at least has the hope of stock-market theory: Past performance does not indicate future results.

Benching Heinicke is a far cry from telling some established quarterback to take a seat, but it surely underscores the what-have-you-done lately stakes of the NFL. Heinicke has proven to be quite a scrapper and was a key impetus for Washington’s ability to claw into the playoff picture by winning five of his starts. The Commanders wouldn’t even be in the playoff race without Heinicke. The past two weeks, though, in losses at San Francisco and against the Giants, Heinicke was an NFL quarterback version of a club fighter. Not good enough.

Rivera fueled the possibility of a switch by pulling Heinicke after he committed two turnovers on consecutive drives in the fourth quarter against the 49ers (with a defense that has beat up the best quarterback), then watching Wentz come off the bench and promptly lead Washington to a touchdown drive.

Still, quarterback moves can be so tricky, which Rivera knows all about. This latest switch will mark the 10th quarterback change since Rivera became Washington’s coach in 2020. In this case, Rivera apparently concluded that they’ve gone as far as they can with Heinicke and that Wentz offers Washington (7-7-1) a better chance of knocking off Cleveland on Sunday, then a playoff-bound Dallas Cowboys squad that will have nothing to play for.

Heinicke has passed for an average of 206.6 yards while Washington’s offense leaned heavily on a 13th-ranked running game in Wentz’s absence. Wentz generally puts up bigger numbers and his showing in running the no-huddle offense on Sunday apparently left the right impression on Rivera.

And hey, Heinicke is still in Rivera’s back pocket for the possibility of another emergency switch.

Yet putting Wentz back in the lineup also provides a reminder of Rivera’s assessment from earlier this season. When the Commanders fell to the Tennessee Titans in Week 5, when Wentz passed for 359 yards but threw a goal line interception in crunch time, someone asked Rivera to identify the difference between Washington and the leading NFC East contenders, Philadelphia and Dallas.

“Quarterback,” Rivera flatly stated.

That was then. And this is now. Rivera may have thrown Wentz under the bus in October, but now the coach needs the quarterback to make him eat that statement. Or else.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY