- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 13, 2021

In hindsight, Ron Rivera admits he should have done things differently.

Reflecting on 2020, the Washington coach said in a radio interview this week that he mishandled the team’s quarterback situation over the summer when he decided to give all the first-team reps to Dwayne Haskins rather than embrace an open competition.

“I made a mistake,” Rivera told 106.7 The Fan. “I’m owning up to it. That’s the truth.”

Haskins, of course, was benched after four games. Rivera salvaged the season by turning to Kyle Allen, Alex Smith and even Taylor Heinicke — a hodge-podge of passers who were just good enough to help the team make the playoffs at 7-9.  

But heading into next year, Rivera is determined to do better as the team looks for answers at a position that posed mostly questions in the season Just wrapped.

Washington, with a talented supporting cast on defense and on offense, looks like the kind of team that, with a competent quarterback, can compete for at least a couple of years while young stars like Terry McLaurin and Chase Young are locked into cap-friendly rookie deals. 

Rivera has to decide whether that means bringing back Smith or one of the other members of the rotating cast from 2020, rolling the dice on signing another veteran, or even reaching for a young arm in the upcoming draft. 

Washington picks 19th — and the premier quarterbacks (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields) figure to be long gone by then. That leaves others like South Dakota’s Trey Lance and Alabama’s Mac Jones as possible options. But there’s no guarantee a rookie would be able to come in and have the immediate impact Rivera and Co. need.

There are some intriguing possibilities around the league, though. The big fish: Houston’s Deshaun Watson, who’s reportedly disgruntled over the Texans’ hiring of general manager Nick Caserio. 

Watson is the ideal franchise quarterback: He’s got a rocket arm, ability to extend plays with his legs and at 25, he’s just entering his prime. Watson is coming off a terrific year in which he led the league in passing yards with 4,832 yards — despite the Texans trading DeAndre Hopkins before the season.

There are potential problems in pursuing Watson, even if the Texans were open to dealing him. The first? Cost.

With a plethora of teams likely lining up to acquire him, Watson would likely warrant multiple first-round picks. That’s something Washington might not be willing to do, given it went so poorly when trading for the pick to draft Robert Griffin III in 2012. The second, potentially larger problem, is that Watson has a no-trade clause — meaning he’ll have final say over any destination. 

Watson regularly works out with Haskins in the offseason, and the two share a personal quarterbacks coach. Would Haskins’ damaged relationship with Washington prevent Watson from being interested? That’s purely speculation, but worth wondering. 

Beyond Watson, there’s Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Detroit’s Matt Stafford. Both could be available as the Falcons and the Lions look to rebuild under new regimes. Ryan, a former MVP, or Stafford, a gunslinger who’s battled through injuries, could just be what Washington needs as it looks to take the next step. 

Besides the veterans, there are two other young quarterbacks who could be traded: the Jets’ Sam Darnold and Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz.  Both are coming off rough seasons, so who knows if Washington would see enough upside to make a deal. 

As for free agency, there’s really only one star that might become available: Dallas’ Dak Prescott. Dallas owner Jerry Jones, however, has repeatedly said he has no intention of letting Prescott walk. The Cowboys could retain Prescott by extending him or slapping him with the franchise tag for the second straight year. 

Beyond Prescott, New England Patriots starter Cam Newton will hit the market — and is an obvious option given he spent the first nine years of his career with Rivera in Carolina. Newton, though, is coming off the worst season of his career. He was benched three times and threw for just 2,657 yards in 15 games. There are questions regarding Newton’s health, and Rivera passed on the chance to add him last year when the quarterback was cut by the Panthers. 

Other notable veterans to hit free agency this year include Indianapolis’ Philip Rivers, Miami’s Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Chargers’ Tyrod Taylor. Fitzpatrick was solid with 2,091 yards in nine contests, while Taylor spent most of the year as a backup. Rivers’ future is up in the air as the 39-year-old could easily retire.

Washington, which has $42 million in cap space, will also have to decide to do with its own signal-callers. Smith, 36, can easily be released if he doesn’t decide to retire, though it might be worth keeping him around to mentor a young quarterback if Washington decides to draft one. Heinicke and Allen are both restricted free agents — making it easier to retain them. 

On Monday, Rivera expressed interest in re-signing Heinicke. The 27-year-old was a surprise in the team’s playoff loss, dazzling as he passed for 306 yards.

Rivera, though, said Heinicke wouldn’t be guaranteed to start. Or anyone, for that matter. Rivera, after all, is looking to avoid past mistakes.

“Whoever is penciled in, we’re competing,” Rivera said. “We’re going to compete. That’s the biggest thing that everybody has to understand.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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