On the Washington Commanders’ first third-down attempt against the Jacksonville Jaguars, offensive coordinator Scott Turner dialed up a play that should have looked familiar. With quarterback Carson Wentz in the shotgun, Turner called for a diamond formation on the left, with receivers Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel bunched with running back J.D. McKissic. At the snap, the four fanned out into various routes, forcing defenders to adjust on the fly to cover them all.
Samuel ran a short curl as his defender continued upfield, creating enough space to catch a pass from Wentz and gain a few extra yards on the ground. It was the first of seven third-down conversions for the Commanders and one of multiple plays that seemed to maximize their personnel.
But the reaction was anything but ordinary. On Twitter, former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky, now an analyst at ESPN, wrote that Turner’s creativity was “off the charts.” Others lauded the fresh look and shared clips of the play with reverence.
“We did that [play] last year. And the year before, too,” Turner said Thursday with a wide grin. “I know that we won a game, I guess, and all of a sudden it’s a big deal. But we did that before.”
Although Turner did add new wrinkles to the game plan, some of the old suddenly looked new, largely because he has myriad playmakers and a healthy roster at his disposal.
Since he arrived in Washington in 2020, Turner has faced the annual challenge of adapting his system to different starting quarterbacks and various injuries to key players. His vision so often has been interrupted or unable to take full shape.
But Sunday felt different.
“Having guys healthy, having that extra production, we got speed out there,” said tight end Logan Thomas, who played Sunday for the first time since Week 13 of 2021, when he suffered a knee injury. “The defenses are respecting you. You can’t just double-team one guy and try to lock down one side. They got to respect everybody.”
Added McLaurin: “I knew this was an emphasis for us in the offseason, to just try to surround our quarterback with as many weapons as we can and be an explosive offense, stretch the ball down the field, which I think we did [against the Jaguars].”
The “Air Coryell” is still the basis of Scott Turner’s offense, just as it was for his father, Norv Turner, when he coached. But the younger Turner has put his own spin on the scheme, which emphasizes the vertical passing game, and tailored it to fit his personnel.
With the acquisition of Wentz in March, the Commanders got a bigger quarterback who can take more deep shots. Just as he did Sunday.
“We had a couple of plays down the field that we didn’t get the right looks, so the ball got checked out,” Turner said. “Carson did an outstanding job of not trying to force it. Got the little check down, and then we’re on to the next one. We’re definitely going to be aggressive, and we’re going to try to push it down the field, but it might not always show up every week, because teams might play us soft.”
Though not all of the intended deep-ball attempts came through, the successful ones showed the Commanders’ array of weapons, be it their leading trio of wide receivers or their two backs, Antonio Gibson and McKissic, who are former wideouts. Or their tight ends, who include quarterback converts Thomas and Armani Rogers.
Washington has preached versatility for years, but on Sunday, the efforts shined. There were big scoring plays and big plays that set up scores, such as Rogers’s short catch off a screen that he turned into a 23-yard gain on Washington’s opening drive. Or, two plays later, when Gibson’s 26-yard catch on a deep corner route set up Samuel’s first touchdown with the team. Or Thomas’s 27-yard catch that nearly put the Commanders in field goal range and led to McLaurin’s touchdown.
“We’re very versatile, and I think that’s what makes us have the ability to do some really good things,” Wentz said after the game. “Obviously, we got to play together and keep building. But I thought [Sunday] showed a little bit of who we are and what we can do, you know, running the ball, spreading teams out, underneath taking shots, and hopefully we can keep getting better at it.”
On the sideline earlier in the game, Turner and McLaurin decided that if they got the look they wanted, they were going to go deep. So in the fourth quarter, McLaurin ran a go route along the right sideline, beat cornerback Shaquill Griffin in coverage and caught a touchdown pass to bring Washington within two points of Jacksonville.
Roughly eight minutes later, Dotson notched his second touchdown, off a double-route along the right sideline before dive for the catch.
“I knew it was going to be a touchdown from the play call,” Dotson said. “We’d been working that all week. . . . The corner . . . was trying to be very aggressive. He was jumping our short routes . . . but we got him right where we wanted him: third down, man to man. He wanted to be aggressive, and we had a counter for it.”
Turner has the enviable challenge of spreading the ball around to keep all of his playmakers involved. Against the Jaguars, Wentz targeted 10 players at least once. The offense didn’t rely solely on McLaurin, and on the ground, it didn’t run only through Gibson.
“It’s not just to make everybody feel good,” Turner said. “It’s because that makes us harder to defend, when they’re not sure where the ball is going to go, and you line up in different formations, and they can’t just worry about taking one person away or one type of play away. They have to defend everything.”
Because of the limited practice reps and the limited time to implement a long list of plays each week, Turner is tasked with determining which plays are absolutely necessary, which ones will counterbalance the plays they already have and which ones to keep in response to the unexpected.
Turner said the game plans for most weeks include very few new plays. Rather, they’re a combination of altered plays they have used in the past or even some straight from the past. NFL teams have a digital library of plays at their disposal, and it’s not limited to only pro concepts.
“It’s all stuff that we’ve had in conceptually before, and then we just maybe adjust it a little bit, and the quarterback’s just got to get used to calling it, like, matched up with the formation as it is — or sometimes it might be straight from an install that we had in training camp or in a previous game,” Turner said. “Stuff changes week to week based on styles of defense.”
And stuff has changed year to year with the Commanders’ offense. But so far, the old feels new, and Turner’s vision of a dynamic offense with deep threats and speedy playmakers may finally be coming to fruition.
“I was happy with the way our guys played,” Turner said. “ … We got a long way to go. I think we can really be a lot better even than what we were. We left some stuff out there.”