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Washington faces franchise-defining questions ahead of pivotal offseason

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The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of the team.

The question has hovered over Ron Rivera’s two-year tenure as the Washington Football Team coach like a shroud of thick fog from his native Central California coast.

What's the plan at quarterback, and is there another Sonny Jurgensen, Joe Thiesmann or Doug Williams-level leader who can lift this franchise to the great heights it once enjoyed?

As Rivera trudges forward following a disappointing, 7-10 season and looks to 2022, his overriding goal is clarity. Sometime in the next several months, he expects to address the most important position on his football team in a definitive and inspired manner, giving Washington's fans -- and the men in his locker room -- a reason to get excited.

There are many, many potential targets, some of which I'm told it would be better not to mention by name, lest the people in charge of the teams for which they are currently under contract take umbrage and unleash the NFL's tampering police. So no, I won't be specifically citing any accomplished quarterbacks who may or may not be married to a famous singer, engaged to a famous actress or infamously shelved by a slew of civil lawsuits. Nor will I explicitly ponder the possibility that if a coaching change happens in a city celebrated for its nightlife a certain QB may not stay in said city -- as I did in a recent column for another website.

I know, I know: So much for clarity. It's coming, however, because Rivera -- along with general manager Martin Mayhew and executive vice president of player personnel/football Marty Hurney -- is determined to work toward a franchise-defining decision. Such a move, the coach believes, will create a sense of stability inside the building, sending a message to players, and fans, that the status quo is unacceptable.

For that reason, standing pat is the only option that's not on the table. Among the possibilities:

  • Washington could make a major play for a star who might be made available via the trade market, as was the case with Matthew Stafford a year ago. There are at least three decorated passes, including two previous Super Bowl winners, whose potential desire to play elsewhere has surfaced in numerous media reports over the past year, each of whom would theoretically command a steep price. There's another standout quarterback who may also soon fit into this category, according to my aforementioned report for the other website, and Washington could try to (ahem) roll the dice by dealing for him. However, there is no guarantee that any of these quarterbacks will ultimately relocate.
  • The team could use its first-round pick (11th overall) -- or trade up in the first round -- to draft a quarterback. This year's class is considered weaker than the crop of passers which produced five of the 2021 draft's first 15 selections, but at least half a dozen draft-eligible QBs could be on the team's radar: Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett, Mississippi's Matt Corral, North Carolina's Sam Howell, Liberty's Malik Willis, Nevada's Carson Strong and Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder.
  • There are quarterbacks on NFL rosters with less star power than the aforementioned trio (or, possibly, quartet) who could be acquired via trade -- I won't mention specific names, but a former No. 1 overall pick and a QB who started for his team in a Super Bowl might fit the bill -- or free agency. Among those who should be available on the free agent market: Jameis Winston (the first overall pick in the 2015 draft) and Mitchell Trubisky (second overall in 2017).

In any scenario, it's likely that Taylor Heinicke, who gave a gutty performance in Washington's first-round playoff defeat to the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers last January and started 15 games in 2021, will report to training camp next summer as one of the NFL's more accomplished backups. They could do a lot worse: Heinicke is smart enough to thrive without a ton of practice reps, should be thrown into a game on short notice, and is a well-liked player who'd likely be a supportive locker-room presence. He also could step in as a spot starter and inspire plenty of confidence, and he has shown he can give the team a spark.

The identity -- and salary cap figure -- of the quarterback at the top of the depth chart will impact the rest of the roster, as Rivera, Mayhew and Hurney attempt to navigate an offseason full of decisions about current players (some of them impending free agents) and their contract situations.

Philosophically, Rivera and company are inclined to hold onto their own players and build through the draft, and it will be much easier to retain current contributors if the team has a starting quarterback on a rookie deal, as opposed to a superstar at or near the top of the league's salary scale. Washington will have a projected $60 million cap space, but a big-ticket quarterback could eat up a massive chunk of that.

Two standouts who remain on rookie contracts, wide receiver Terry McLaurin (a 2019 third-round pick) and defensive tackle Daron Payne (a 2018 first-rounder), are in line for extensions that could theoretically be completed this offseason.

Washington must also make decisions on numerous soon-to-be free agents, including Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Scherff, free safety Bobby McCain and running back J.D. McKissic. Scherff played under the franchise tag in 2021 for the second consecutive season, taking up slightly more than $18 million in cap space, and tagging him again would be prohibitive. Rivera, Mayhew and Hurney could elect to go with a younger replacement such as Saahdiq Charles or Wes Schweitzer, or try once again to reach a longterm agreement with Scherff.

There are also key players such as Landon Collins, a former Pro Bowl safety now mostly deployed closer to the line of scrimmage as a Buffalo nickel, who could theoretically be asked to restructure and/or take a pay cut. Collins has three years and $45 million remaining on the massive deal he signed with Washington as a free agent in March of 2019.

Other questions concern the middle linebacker position (Rivera now believes Jamin Davis, the No. 19 overall pick in last year's draft, is better suited to play on the outside), which could be addressed in free agency, and the quest for a potent receiving threat opposite McLaurin, though Rivera is convinced that a healthy Curtis Samuel would solve the latter issue. Samuel, a dangerous weapon for Rivera during the latter part of his tenure as the Carolina Panthers' coach, signed a three-year, $34-million deal in free agency last year, had offseason groin surgery and never truly recovered, playing in five games and gaining just 38 yards from scrimmage.

All of these considerations, which constitute part of the inevitable offseason roster-tinkering that takes place in every organization, will have an impact on Washington's quest to end a string of five consecutive losing campaigns (albeit one of which earned the 2020 NFC East title).

In Rivera's eyes, solving the lingering quarterback question is by far the most important initiative. He's not wrong.

When Rivera took the job two years ago, his goal -- in addition to changing the organizational culture -- was to build a roster from front to back, with an early emphasis on the offensive and defensive lines.  The first part of that formula, he believes, has been attained (even if Scherff were to leave via free agency).

Getting it right at quarterback has proven to be more difficult. In 2020 Rivera inherited Dwayne Haskins, the 15th overall selection in the 2019 draft, and gave him a chance to prove his worth as a starter -- but poor play and immaturity led to his release before the regular season had even ended.

Last March, after having tried to trade for Detroit's Stafford (before losing out to the Los Angeles Rams), Washington signed veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick to a one-year, $10 million deal. Fitzpatrick, 38 at the time, suffered a season-ending (and career-threatening) hip injury in the second quarter of the 2021 season opener, and Heinicke took over, completing 65% of his passes while throwing for 3,419 yards, with 20 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and an 85.9 passer rating. Washington went 7-8 in the games that he started, as a slew of injuries and COVID-19-related absences kept it from building on a four-game winning streak that had propelled Rivera's team back into playoff contention.

Coming out of Year Two, Rivera regards his overall roster as talented and deep enough to reach the postseason, and then some -- as long as there's a difference-maker at quarterback. He's open to a multitude of scenarios toward that end, all of which will be the prime topic of internal discussions in the coming days, weeks and perhaps months.

The Washington Football Team wraps up its 2021 season with a road matchup against the New York Giants. (Photos by Emilee Fails/Washington Football Team)

Suffice it to say, this is not a new area of emphasis. Members of Washington's analytics department have been crunching numbers on quarterbacks, current pros (who, naturally, shall remain nameless) and draft-eligible collegiate players alike, for the past several months. It's probably not a stretch to say that a waking hour doesn't pass without Rivera at least thinking about the subject.

On some level, he has to think about himself. Though he guided Washington to an unlikely playoff berth in his first season, Rivera views Year Three as a pivotal year, and it's likely that ownership shares that opinion. At his season-ending press conference, Rivera was asked about the prospect of picking a quarterback in the first-round -- and he gave a revealing answer. Were that to happen, the coach said, he'd be inclined to start the rookie from the outset, adding one caveat: "Are you guys gonna give me time?"

It's a valid question -- patience is usually required when quarterbacks play from the outset -- and one that only ownership can truthfully answer.

Either way, this remains a fluid situation, one that inevitably will be affected by the moves made (or not made) by other teams in the coming weeks.

"It's like they'll be standing at the roulette table, watching the ball bounce around and waiting to see where they land," said one source familiar with the team's plans. "You've got to go down several roads at once, and if all goes well you'll find the guy that can be 'The Guy' for the next 10 or 15 years."

If Washington fails at that endeavor, it won't be for lack of trying. Soon, the fog will clear, and we can all begin assessing the outcome.

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