It was basically the perfect embodiment of Washington’s 2021 NFL season: Taylor Heinicke, thinking he scored a touchdown and doing the Lambeau Leap into the stands, only to find out he slid a tad too early — leading to a zero sum possession at the goal line that all but decided the game in favor of the Green Bay Packers.
Heinicke, 28, was starting for only the seventh time in a career that consists of only 15 games — less than a full season of reps over a span of five years. Yet Heinicke, as green as he is, isn’t as inexperienced as a good number of his teammates.
Head coach (and de facto team architect) Ron Rivera entered the season borderline bragging about the youth of his team, pointing out nearly half the roster was comprised of players in their first, second or third seasons.
Though the faces of the franchise — Chase Young, Terry McLaurin, Jonathan Allen and, arguably, Heinicke — are all relatively early in their careers, Washington’s initial 53-man roster had an average age of 26.0, 21st in the league. However, the Football Team opened the season with only seven players over 30, tied for fourth fewest in the league.
Obviously, it’s great to put together a young core and let it grow. But given the ingredients of Washington’s disappointing 2-5 start, it’s hard not to question whether Rivera was too quick to move on from some strong veteran leadership.
Anyone who’s objectively watched this team knows that the likes of Ryan Kerrigan, Morgan Moses and, yes, even Trent Williams, were good, reliable players on the field and locker room leaders off it. Sure, they played on a bunch of bad teams, but tossing aside productive veteran players with some tread left on the tires is tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Setting aside Williams (who infamously sat out the entire 2019 season and basically forced his way to San Francisco to become the highest paid left tackle in the league), Kerrigan and Moses would have been affordable to keep around.
I’m not saying having them on the roster would necessarily take Washington from 2-5 to 5-2, but perhaps a more veteran team doesn’t beat itself so thoroughly with ill-timed penalties and third-down brain farts as this team has over the season’s first seven weeks.
This was a lesson Washington learned the hard way early in the Snyder era. The Burgundy and Gold didn’t value glue guys like Ryan Clark, James Thrash or Brian Mitchell properly, and not only did those players thrive elsewhere — Washington replaced them with some of the franchise’s all-time biggest flops (Adam Archuleta, Rod Gardner and Deion Sanders, respectively).
I’m well aware neither Kerrigan nor Moses is making an impact on his new team, but their worth in Washington is probably greater than it is in Philadelphia and New York, respectively. There’s a case to be made that their veteran presence would have well-served Washington’s highly underachieving defensive line and rookie offensive tackle Sam Cosmi without significantly cutting into their playing time.
In some ways, Washington’s roster construction calls to mind a huge part of the problem with having the head coach also have so much to do with directing player personnel: Ron Rivera the talent evaluator/de facto GM can undermine Ron Rivera the head coach.
Bill Parcells famously wanted to shop for the groceries and make the meal, which he did for the New York Jets and largely in Dallas, but won exactly one playoff game.
That dual power certainly didn’t work for one of Rivera’s predecessors in Washington, Mike Shanahan. Nor did it bring ultimate success for Mike Holmgren in Seattle or Andy Reid in Philadelphia. New England has fared remarkably worse in the draft since Bill Belichick started wearing two hats.
The fact is, these two very separate jobs are not meant to be done by any one man, no matter how extraordinary he is. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to work those two exhausting jobs concurrently — especially when the coach’s job is to figure out how to win today, and the GM’s main function is ensuring the team is good for the long haul.
In terms of changing the culture within the Washington locker room, Rivera has done as good a job as can be expected. But his rush to get rid of some of the few good things about the Burgundy and Gold in recent years may have cost him a chance at being truly competitive in this one.