Washington Commanders 2021 Team Study

Part 8 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 7 here: New York Giants. Part 9 now available: Cincinnati Bengals.

Offense

Eff. Rating Adj. Rating Rank
4.74 -0.21 21st

Offensive Eff. Rating (maroon and yellow) v. opponent average allowed (grey).

Pass EPA Rush EPA Adj. Pass Rate
23rd 15th 24th

I was excited to see Taylor Heinicke as a full-time starting quarterback. He showed ability and leadership late in 2020 and I thought he deserved a fair shot. And he was . . . okay. Better than the dismal rotation they had the year before. He showed he could make plays even in tough situations and keep plays alive with surprising mobility. He likely would have benefitted from more creative play-calling, but we never know whether that’s simply bad coaching or a coaching staff tailoring the offense to the quarterback's abilities.

What we do know is that he was not afraid to sling the ball around. If he was going to flame out as a starting quarterback, he would go down swinging. Despite a conservative approach designed to limit negative plays (9th-highest adjusted run rate and 22nd-lowest average depth of target), Washington managed to turn the ball over at the 8th-highest rate. Heinicke had more interceptions per pass attempt that any other full-time starter despite having one of the NFL's cleanest pockets. When things weren’t happening he tried to force it, with mixed results.

Heinicke deserves part of the blame. But I think the offense as a whole failed to put him in winning situations. They have a great athlete in Antonio Gibson who has proven to be an effective runner and pass catcher. But instead of featuring him as a versatile weapon (the way the Saints feature Alvin Kamara or the Panthers feature CMC), they basically projected run plays while he was in the game and pass plays when they subbed in J.D. McKissic. They have some nice receiving options in those running backs and tight end Logan Thomas, but failed to establish a true WR2 opposite Terry McLaurin. They signed Curtis Samuel in the off-season to fill this role but he never got healthy.

It’s really tough for even a talented receiver like McLaurin to excel when the defense only has to account for one outside weapon. Washington’s offensive success often came down to how well they could utilize McLaurin in a given game. In Washington wins, McLaurin averaged 80 yards a game. In losses, he averaged fewer than 50 yards a game. Chart A shows Washington’s adjusted Effectiveness in each game this season, ranking all of its opponents by their relative pass strength against #1 WRs compared to their overall passing defense in DVOA. Teams on the left were better against #1 WRs than other weapons and teams on the right were particularly vulnerable to #1 WRs.

Chart A

Chart A: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent strength defending a team's WR1 compared to its overall pass defense in DVOA.
*Omitted Week 15 v. PHI because of WAS Covid absences, including Heinicke and Kyle Allen. DVOA data courtesy of Football Outsiders.

They played three of their best offensive games relative to opponent against ATL (+0.20), LV (+0.27), and CAR (+1.17), who were all susceptible to big games by top outside receivers. And their schedule did them no favors here, playing a majority of their games against teams that were relatively strong against top receivers. They weren't built to spread the ball all over the field in the passing game.

I am not sure how much of an upgrade Carson Wentz is over Heinicke at this point (if any). Heinicke can make plays happen but his aggressiveness costs him frequently. He’s basically Ryan Fitzpatrick. Wentz is likely a better downfield thrower but lacks consistency on the easy ones. The 2021 Washington offense relied on consistency because it was run-heavy and involved a lot of short passes to tight ends and running backs. On first glance, Wentz seems like a poor fit.

Overall, I see three avenues for this offense to improve: First, they need a true #2 wide receiver. Samuel has talent and has has shown ability at times in his career. They also have some young players who could develop into that role. Second, Wentz needs to take care of the ball and not try to be a hero. If they reduce turnovers it will go a long way. And third, they could spruce up the play-calling, especially given the versatility of so many of their offensive weapons. Any combination of these improvements will be helpful.

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