Why do the Commanders want a run-first offense?
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During a press conference Tuesday, Washington Chiefs coach Ron Rivera and general manager Martin Mayhew emphasized that they want to have a first-round offense in 2023. They cited their playing careers — both defensive backs for the heavy in the 1980s and ’90s — and repeatedly referred to the team’s “formula” with quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who had to run downhill, take away play action and dominate time of possession to help the defense.
Despite devoting significant resources to the passing game last offseason, and despite throwing often early this season, Mayhew said the pass-heavy approach was circumstantial. If running back Brian Robinson Jr. had he been healthy to start the season, he said, the offense would have been first.
“We were outscored two-to-one, which is not our formula,” Mayhew said of those early weeks. He pointed to the convincing win over Dallas in the season finale. “We were a two-on-one pass. … That’s how we want to play.”
Do commanders really want to be the first strike in 2023? Or will they be forced into it?
It is a difficult question. Several factors could influence the answer, including the outcome of the next quarterback search and who Rivera hires to replace offensive coordinator Scott Turner, who was fired Tuesday.
But if the franchise does indeed spend the offseason building a first unit, it will be digging in its feet in an approach that contrasts with most major league offenses. Even though running the ball became fashionable again in 2022, and even though the team has two talented backs, the best offenses in the modern NFL still throw first downs and have an elite quarterback. A small example: Of the 16 teams that ran the most early downs this season, only two made the playoffs (Dallas and San Francisco).
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Under Heinicke this year, Washington ran the ball on early downs in neutral situations 62.8 percent of the time, according to the website RBSDM.com. Over a full season, that would rank as the fourth-highest run rate by any offense since 2010. If you’ve watched Heinicke this year, you’re well aware of the dangers of the approach: It reduces the margin for error. In a shorter game, the offense has to sustain long drives, which is difficult historically, and a mistake or two in the red zone can be devastating.
But earlier this year, Atlanta Falcons coach Arthur Smith pointed out that while coaches know the pass is more efficient than the rush, they also need to adjust their rosters.
“It’s not unlike basketball, where everyone predicted every team in the league would play like Golden State,” Smith said. “Well, if you don’t have good three-point shooters, there’s no point in shooting a bunch of threes. Sometimes it’s just necessity and practicality [to run the ball more].”
That idea might sound strange in Washington, which appeared to be building a pass-rushing offense by signing Curtis Samuel, re-signing Terry McLaurin and spending a first-round pick on Jahan Dotson. If the Chiefs stick to that formula, they’d only have about 29 targets per game — the average under Heinicke — to spread among the three wideouts, running backs, tight ends and fourth receiver Dyami Brown .
But Smith’s point is still important because Washington may not be able to significantly upgrade its quarterback this offseason. There are questions about the top tier of veterans who could be available — Tom Brady, Derek Carr, Lamar Jackson and Jimmy Garoppolo — and with the 16th pick in the draft, Washington may not be able to land a top prospect.
A reporter asked Rivera and Mayhew if they want to be first because of a philosophical belief or because of their personnel.
“Philosophical faith,” Rivera said. “I mean, for me it is. I was involved with that. I think a big part of it is you have to be able to help your defense as well. If you look at a lot of teams that finish [having success]most of them rush for more than 1000 [yards] on offense. They control the pace of the game and I think that’s what we need to do to win football games.”
Mayhew echoed Rivera, noting much of his NFL success — as a player in Washington, as a GM in Detroit, as an executive in San Francisco — came with pass-first offenses complementing great defenses. Mayhew noted that Rivera played in Chicago with Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton.
In Washington, Rivera has said he wants to recreate the two-back system he had in Carolina with Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. In Rivera’s first two years, Stewart and Williams played in 57 of 64 games and combined for 656 touches, 3,562 yards and 21 touchdowns.
But in the next two years, Stewart and Williams dealt with major injuries and missed 24 of 64 games. This year, Robinson and Antonio Gibson have battled injuries — Gibson had surgery last week — though both are expected to recover and be ready for the 2023 opener.
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Regardless of the final offensive approach, Rivera and Mayhew acknowledged that they need to improve the offensive line. This year, Washington had one of the league’s worst units, with constant personnel at center and two guards, Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner, who struggled in space. Mayhew said the line needed to be made newer.
“Obviously, there’s a need,” Mayhew said, adding, “We’ve had a number of injuries [on the line] during the last two years. We need to appreciate that process and why it happens. But when we play our formula and our style of football, those guys play really well for us.”
Rivera jumped in: “Unfortunately, the position we’ve had a lot of injuries is center, and it’s something we have to look at and figure out how we can strengthen that group and hopefully not have to go through that again. “
If Washington improves any of its three biggest offensive needs — quarterback, linebacker and punter — it could have a better chance to execute the fundamentals of a first scheme, such as holding moves, punting explosive plays and finishing in the red zone. .
But what would be the ceiling of such an approach?
If 2021 was a preview of the answer and 2022 a deeper investigation, then 2023 could be Rivera and Mayhew joining the approach.
“If we can… add some talent in some areas [and] Keep working on what our formula is,” Rivera said. “I think it gives us an opportunity to keep growing and getting better.”