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Ownership concerns, an unproven QB could hamper Commanders’ OC search

Ron Rivera is in the market for a new offensive coordinator after the team fired Scott Turner at season's end. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Two days after their season ended with a win over the Dallas Cowboys, the Washington Commanders fired offensive coordinator Scott Turner. The team is in search of a “fresh start” at the position, Coach Ron Rivera said.

Their search began in earnest this week, with interviews with three candidates, and will continue into next week with more interviews expected.

Washington isn’t alone in the process; nine other teams — the Ravens, Buccaneers, Chargers, Patriots, Jets, Titans, Cardinals, Rams and Colts — are also seeking to fill the position, with many interviewing the same candidates.

Perhaps under normal circumstances, Washington’s vacancy would be perceived as a golden opportunity. But the franchise rarely does normal, and this year, it has added a twist. The Commanders don’t have a long-term answer at quarterback and haven’t for years. But they also don’t have clarity with their ownership.

Daniel and Tanya Snyder announced in November that they will “explore potential transactions” related to the team, and multiple people with knowledge of the situation have said recently that a sale of the entire team is the most likely outcome.

For the day-to-day, the Commanders have claimed little, if anything, changes.

“Business as usual,” team president Jason Wright said Friday. “So no different from what you guys have heard of my interactions with [ownership] in the past. … For us, it’s very simple — and it’s for me, it’s for Ron — nothing changes. Build a healthy business, build a winning team, and that’s all there is to do.”

But for a prospective coordinator, the ownership uncertainty could give pause. It’s plausible a new owner would want changes that align with their vision for the team — especially if the Commanders struggle next season. That would render the coordinator vacancy a possible lame-duck job.

“They’re not going to be able to get somebody on a one-year deal in a situation where there could be an ownership change,” former NFL executive and current ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum said. “But there are a number of good pieces on that offense.”

Selling a job with little security to candidates who have options could be difficult.

The harder sell, Tannenbaum believes, will be the absence of a quarterback, especially as Washington competes for a candidate interviewing elsewhere, such as with, say, the Chargers.

Analysis: A closer look at the Commanders’ offensive coordinator candidates

“Clearly, Justin Herbert is going to be a massive appeal to somebody to take that job,” Tannenbaum said, referring to Los Angeles’s impressive young quarterback. “So if I’m an offensive coordinator, the quarterback is going to be sort of the threshold part of the analysis.”

Even Rivera had said as much.

When asked this season why the other teams in the NFC East, once the league’s worst division, turned things around, Rivera answered simply: “Quarterback.”

“ … I’ve said that before, and I really do believe that’s a big part of what we need to get to. … The things that we do and the things that we can do really do revolve around that position,” he added after the team’s season-ending win over the Cowboys. “That’s why so many teams have struggled and so many teams have had success.”

Outside of the quarterback, Washington’s roster is better positioned than it has been in previous seasons — on the field and in its search to find a play caller.

“I think this is a team that’s really not that far away,” Tannenbaum said.

Few teams boast a receiving trio like that of Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel. Washington may have found a dynamic running back tandem in Brian Robinson Jr. and Antonio Gibson. Its defense has one of the top lines in the NFL, plus a young secondary with staples that include Kam Curl, Benjamin St-Juste and Darrick Forrest. And the special teams has been a consistent asset, thanks largely to punter Tress Way.

The Commanders, in many respects, have the makings of a team on the rise. But without an owner or a quarterback, the appeal of the OC job may be limited.

“You can still win games in this league playing a very high-level defense, running the football, having a quarterback that can make plays for you in specific game situations,” former NFL safety and current ESPN analyst Matt Bowen said. “But ultimately, based on how the league is played right now and the rules of the league, you need someone who can take over football games at that position to win a title if you want to be a consistent competitor. Doesn’t mean you can’t do it once. But if you want to be a consistent competitor year in and year out and battle for the division lead and consistently are in the playoffs and playing deep into January, you need someone that can take over games at that position.”

This week, Washington interviewed former New York Giants coach Pat Shurmur, current Commanders quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese and Atlanta Falcons quarterbacks coach Charles London for the coordinator job. Next week, the list includes Miami Dolphins running backs coach and associate head coach Eric Studesville and Los Angeles Rams assistant head coach and tight ends coach Thomas Brown.

Throughout the process, the Commanders have told candidates that Sam Howell is their starting quarterback going into organized team activities and training camp. The former fifth-round pick will still have to earn the job, but for now, the team’s thinking is that Howell will play a significant part in the 2023 plans.

Analysis: What to know about the Commanders’ offseason, from roster needs to QB options

In Howell’s lone start, he completed 11 of 19 passes for 169 yards, one passing touchdown, an interception and 83.0 passer rating against the Cowboys. He also had a rushing touchdown.

The Commanders ran the ball 41 times, totaling 151 yards.

“We weren’t able to play the style of ball we wanted to play the first couple of games, as you guys saw,” General Manager Martin Mayhew said in a news conference held just hours before the firing of Turner. “Didn’t have [Robinson], didn’t have the run game going the way that we wanted it going. We were 2-to-1 pass-run, which is not our formula. As you saw, this last game, we were 2-to-1 run-pass. For every time that we threw the ball, we ran the ball twice. That’s how we want to play.”

The 1-2 pass-rush ratio has been achieved only once this century in the NFL, but Washington’s desire to be a run-first offense could dictate its search for a coordinator.

So, too, could ownership. And quarterback.

Said Tannenbaum: “It’s a quarterback-driven league, and when the quarterback does well, that’s really good for everybody, and when the quarterback doesn’t do well, it typically isn’t good for everybody.”