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Scott Turner’s latest play call: Moving from the booth to the sideline

Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner moved from the booth to the sideline to improve his communication with new quarterback Carson Wentz. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Sometime after the Washington Commanders acquired their new quarterback in early March, offensive coordinator Scott Turner approached Coach Ron Rivera with an idea. Turner had been mulling it over since the end of the regular season, he later said, and after the team traded for Carson Wentz, he felt strongly that it was the right call.

Turner wanted to move from the coaches’ booth down to the field.

It will be a shift. In two years as Washington’s coordinator, Turner called all 2,386 plays from the booth high above the ground, where he had a tactical view of opposing defenses. But he does have a little experience coordinating from the sideline — 280 plays with the Carolina Panthers at the end of 2019 — and he thought a switch might help his communication with Wentz. After all, the quarterback has had his play-caller on the sideline for his entire six-year career, totaling 5,778 snaps.

In training camp, Turner has communicated plays with a walkie-talkie to Wentz’s helmet during drives and huddled with him afterward. He has come to regard their face-to-face conversations as “really valuable.”

“The communication … is huge,” Turner said. “[It’s just] hearing [how he sees things] directly from him, not through another person, not having to get him on the phone or have somebody give him a headset. … [The practices] really confirmed it, where it’s like, ‘Hey, I think this is important to have that direct line of communication.’ ”

Now, Turner’s adjustment for Wentz seems like a big bet ahead of a crucial year. In the past two seasons, while Turner has had one of the NFL’s least-talented units, his offenses have ranked 29th in points per game (18.5) and 27th in Expected Points Added per play (minus-0.09). This season, the 40-year-old has a much better chance to succeed with Wentz and key additions at skill positions.

In the preseason opener against Carolina, Turner’s offense looked similar to what he has run over the past two years — lots of motion and play action — and Wentz’s arm strength appeared to let him expand the playbook. Rivera praised the rapport between them, complimenting the rhythm of the play-calling and the team’s ability to get to the line with plenty of time left on the play clock.

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“I like picking Coach Turner’s brain a lot,” Wentz said. “Just how he sees the game and how he wants to attack defenses. I’ve already learned a lot from him, and it’s been fun just creating that chemistry but in a different way than with receivers.”

The value Wentz puts on the chemistry between quarterback and play-caller seems to come from his earliest days in the NFL. In 2016, Philadelphia drafted him with the second pick and paired him with Doug Pederson, who previously had some but not all of the play-calling responsibilities as the offensive coordinator in Kansas City. Pederson was a first-time head coach, and Wentz seemed to enjoy growing with him.

That season, the Eagles finished 7-9, last in the NFC East, and Pederson came under fire for his play-calling. A reporter asked Wentz how he thought his coach did.

“One thing I always appreciated with Coach Pederson was he valued my input, even as a rookie,” Wentz answered. “He valued my opinion on things. I thought that was awesome.”

In 2020, after things fell apart in Philly, Wentz wound up in Indianapolis with Coach Frank Reich, his former offensive coordinator. Even though Reich hadn’t called plays for Wentz, he had stayed on the sideline in Philadelphia because, he told reporters, it was fun to watch Pederson’s interactions with his quarterback — how “focused and intense” Pederson was, how he brought “a sense of confidence and direction.”

Last year in camp with the Colts, Reich said he was still learning how to communicate with Wentz. The quarterback wanted control of the offense; the coach did too.

“There’s uncomfortable moments,” Reich told the Athletic. “We’re both pretty stubborn. We get in a disagreement, and it goes a step further than, ‘Oh that feels weird. We really don’t agree on this.’ But it’s always fine. We work through that stuff. Obviously, as the coach, I’m always going to have the last say. But I never try to use that position. I want it to be a collaborative thing. But there is a chain of command. That chain of command has to be followed for it to work.”

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This fall, Wentz will try to stabilize his career and Turner will try to prove his capabilities. Each will need to rely on the people he trusts, which must include each other. Many experts are skeptical, because if Reich couldn’t fix Wentz, how could someone who doesn’t know him nearly as well?

But five months in, Turner is optimistic.

“Carson has been outstanding,” he said. “He’s an outstanding communicator. We’ve had great back and forth.”

Now, Washington must hope that will continue.

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