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.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Offensive Eff. Rating (maroon and yellow) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPAAdj. Pass Rate

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.

But ultimately the upside seems somewhat capped with Wentz at the helm. Most likely, they’ll repeat as a close-to-average offense still figuring out how to put it all together. They did have a strong offensive line in 2021, which will be extremely important for a quarterback like Wentz. But line play is not highly consistent year to year. If they suffer regression or injury on the offensive line, it could be bad for this offense in 2022.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Defensive Eff. Rating (maroon and yellow) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPABlitz RatePressure Rate

Washington’s defensive regression in 2021 exemplifies the problems with how many fans and analysts approach defensive performance evaluation. In reality, defensive numbers hinge much more on the quality of opponent than offensive numbers do. Specifically, the quality of a team’s opposing quarterback primarily determines how well a defense performs. In 2020, Washington faced an easy schedule on the surface that was even easier when put in context. In my 2020 Washington Team Study I argued that Washington benefitted from extremely favorable circumstances that inflated their defensive performance:

Excerpt from my Washington Football Team 2020 Team Study.

But many people overlooked this context and hyped Washington’s defense because surface-level metrics looked strong. Chase Young performed at a high level as a rookie but the defense was vulnerable in the secondary, so every good quarterback who could combat pressure took advantage. 2021 presented a drastic change in circumstance, as they faced Mahomes, Herbert, Allen, Rodgers, Brady, Wilson, Carr, Dak, Hurts, Ryan, and Winston. Quarterback quality is even more important for defenses built around exerting pressure with blitzes and forcing mistakes. That’s how Washington’s defense is built, and it’s no surprise they struggled against that slate of quarterbacks.

Their schedule was back-loaded with easier matchups, but they weren’t able to take advantage because they suffered major injuries across the defense late in the year. And, as noted above, their offensive turnovers did their defense no favors by giving opponents short fields. It was a perfect storm for a disappointing season.

They were fine against the run. Nobody dominated them until late in the year because they weren’t soft up front. Teams playing with the lead were typically unable to run up the score and run out the clock. They played some of their best games against teams with good running backs and allowed the 8th-fewest yards per carry on the season. But you don’t beat the best teams in the NFL by stopping the run; you have to be able to stop the pass.

Washington could not. They blitzed at the 7th-highest rate, yet only pressured quarterbacks at the 18th-best rate. They struggled in coverage to boot. This a formula that any halfway-decent quarterback will take advantage of. And, as noted above, they faced a lot of decent quarterbacks. William Jackson III and Kendall Fuller were supposed to be a lockdown duo on the outside, but this never materialized. In fact, they finished with the worst DVOA against #2 wide receivers in the NFL. Something wasn’t working.

If I had to guess, Washington’s defense is not as bad as it was in 2021 and not as good as it was in 2020. Context matters. But they are building something and the disappointments of 2021 were more likely a temporary setback than a reversal of a positive trend. With Chase Young healthy, Jamin Davis entering his second year, and hopefully a more favorable schedule, they should be at least average. The biggest lesson to learn from Washington’s 2021 season is the importance of context in making predictions about a team’s defense from year to year.

Key Takeaways

When to bet on the Commanders: The high-pressure defense aims to force quarterbacks into mistakes but can be neutralized by experienced and/or mobile quarterbacks. Washington is still a good bet against immobile quarterbacks who cannot handle pressure, especially if they can run the ball effectively on offense and take the pressure off Wentz.

When to fade the Commanders: If circumstances put them in those favorable situations they can post impressive-looking wins and become overrated by taking advantage of poor quarterback play. The way they were overvalued coming out of the 2020 season is a perfect example. I’m comfortable fading them in those spots when they play a competent quarterback and it’s on Wentz to win a shoot-out.

What to look for in the offseason: Keep an eye on Samuel’s health and whether they make a move to fill the #2 WR spot. Also maintaining the offensive line strength will be really important. On defense, look to see if they bolster their pass rush, which would help make it more difficult for quarterbacks to carve them up.

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