The move is the first domino to fall after the Commanders’ failed playoff bid, but it may not be the last.
Turner reunited with Rivera in Washington in 2020 after Turner had a two-year stint as the Carolina Panthers’ quarterbacks coach. When Carolina let Rivera go, Turner stayed on as offensive coordinator for the final four games of the 2019 season.
Turner’s role in Washington was his first full-time job as a coordinator and came with high stakes. The franchise began a rebuild and a rebrand, and Turner game-planned for eight starting quarterbacks during his tenure.
Commanders players are frustrated with offensive play-calling
Over the past three seasons, Washington’s offense ranked near the bottom of the NFL in many statistical categories, including 27th in yards and red-zone efficiency, 28th in offensive scoring and 25th in third-down conversion rate. The team also has been a model of inefficiency, posting the fourth-worst total offensive expected points added and a turnover-per-drive rate that ranks fifth highest.
The son of former Washington coach Norv Turner, Scott Turner used the foundation of his father’s Air Coryell system, which typically features a vertical passing attack and a power running game. But in Washington, Turner not only cycled through an array of quarterbacks, he also worked with multiple offensive line iterations and was without running back Brian Robinson Jr. for five games this season.
“We didn’t do the things that we wanted to do this year,” Turner said last week. “… I’m responsible for that as much as anybody. … I think that there’s a lot of room to grow and I look forward to working with these guys and continue to get better and keep improving and get this team where we want it to be.”
Washington’s struggles were connected to myriad factors, including inconsistency at quarterback. But the offense and the play-calling became a source of frustration in the locker room as nearly a dozen players shared their gripes about its predictability, its lack of production and certain calls that seemed to detract from the strengths of the team’s personnel.
In short, the players believed that, given the talent on the roster, they should be producing and winning more.
“We did a nice job getting into the red zone. We just got to convert with touchdowns,” tight end Logan Thomas said. “I think that was a little bit of our struggles. In the red zone, you got to be able to run the football for touchdowns. We got to be able to make plays. It stinks that we didn’t get the job done … because we have the talent.”
From Monday: Commanders players clean out lockers and await an offseason of uncertainty
The Commanders traded for Carson Wentz in March, believing his size and arm strength would stretch the field vertically. But they started 2-4 with Wentz under center, only to turn it around when Taylor Heinicke took over in Week 7 after Wentz was injured the week before.
By turning to the running game, the Commanders won six games in a seven-week span to put them in the playoff conversation before they came unglued in December. Washington went 1-3-1 in its final five games, its lone win coming in a meaningless season finale started by rookie quarterback Sam Howell, to tumble out of postseason contention as it finished 8-8-1.
“I thought we [found our identity in Week 10] when we won in Philadelphia,” left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said. “I felt like that was our identity. We started to get on a winning streak after that, and at times we got away from that for whatever reason. I don’t know what the reason may be, but that’s not my job. I just got to go out and do mine.”
That identity is one Rivera and General Manager Martin Mayhew said they intend to get back to as they retool the roster again this offseason. In a wide-ranging end-of-season news conference Tuesday, held just hours before Turner was let go, the pair said they had intended for the offense to be a run-first system led by Robinson and Antonio Gibson.
“We did a lot of work on Carson,” Mayhew said. “We knew a lot about him – the good, the bad, the ugly. We thought he was a good fit for how we wanted to play football. We weren’t able to play the style of ball we wanted to play the first couple of games. … Didn’t have [Robinson], didn’t have the run game going the way that we wanted it going. We were 2-to-1 pass-run, which is not our formula. As you saw, this last game, we were 2-to-1 run-pass. … That’s how we want to play.”
Mayhew and Rivera said their emphasis on the running game is a philosophical belief rooted in their experience and is not a default approach because of inconsistent quarterback play.
“For me, it is. I’ve been involved with that,” Rivera said. “… We need to control the tempo of the game. I do believe in a two-back system. … We’ve got some talented positions, and we’ve got to be able to get the ball in those guys’ hands.”
The problem with that: Washington’s offense seemingly was constructed with a focus on the passing game. Not only did the Commanders trade for Wentz, they drafted a wide receiver, Jahan Dotson, in the first round.
“I thought last year we had a chance to take a step, and I do think we took a step,” Rivera said. “Am I disappointed we didn’t get in the playoffs? Darn right I am. We had an opportunity to control our own destiny, and we didn’t do the things that we needed to at the right time. But there were some things that we can’t control. So the best thing we can do is control what we can, and that’s the growth and development of our players.”
To stick with the run-first philosophy, Washington’s offseason priorities will include improving the interior of the offensive line, which endured a drop-off in play after parting with guards Brandon Scherff and Ereck Flowers a year ago.
On the other side of the ball, the Commanders hope to add youth and depth in the secondary and must consider the future of Daron Payne, one of their standout defensive tackles. The 2018 first-round pick will be a free agent in March if Washington doesn’t re-sign or franchise tag him. A long-term deal would force Washington to allocate even more salary cap resources to the defensive line; it already has paid fellow tackle Jonathan Allen and soon faces decisions on ends Montez Sweat and Chase Young.
“We’re working through that process now,” Mayhew said. “This is an important part of what we’re doing. … It’d be difficult to move forward without him, obviously. We have a plan, and we definitely want to get him back.”
The Commanders are operating with few guarantees.
In November, owners Daniel and Tanya Snyder announced that they had retained a bank to “consider potential transactions” related to the team, and recent indications are that they plan to sell. But when they sell and to whom it could have significant implications for the football side of the business.
Rivera said he plans to meet with the owner on Monday.
“We’re going to do what we’re supposed to do as far as getting ourselves ready to go forward,” Rivera said. “We’ve got to look at what’s coming up in the draft, what’s coming up in free agency. We’ll look at what we have on our roster and finish those evaluations — finish the evaluations of myself, the staff and what we do.”