PHOENIX — It has been four weeks since the Washington Commanders fired offensive coordinator Scott Turner, and the team has yet to name his replacement. But a decision probably will be made next week, with Coach Ron Rivera hoping to interview one more candidate: Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.
The switch to a new play caller is one of the many pending changes in the Commanders’ future, which could include new ownership, another new quarterback and scheme changes.
On Wednesday in Phoenix, where Rivera was named the NFL’s Salute to Service award winner, the Commanders’ coach spoke on an array of topics about the team’s hopes for the offseason and beyond.
Rivera has interviewed six candidates for offensive coordinator — Pat Shurmur, Ken Zampese, Charles London, Thomas Brown, Eric Studesville and Anthony Lynn — and hopes to talk to Bieniemy after Super Bowl LVII. The longtime Chiefs coordinator has interviewed with the Indianapolis Colts for their head coaching vacancy and is reportedly a candidate for the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive coordinator opening.
Any candidate for Washington’s opening comes with the caveat of a potential ownership change that has raised questions about the security of the job.
“The question has come up,” Rivera said. “Because for them, for a lot of them, it’s . . . ‘I have two years left on my contract. Are they going to give you that two years?’ You know, that’s what everybody has asked. And I said, ‘Look, all I know is I’ve been told it’s business as usual.’ I mean, I get updates. I talk to ownership to let them know where I am. They’ve been nothing but supportive.”
Rivera’s priority is to find a new play caller who can get the ball to the Commanders’ various playmakers, including wideouts Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson; create explosive plays off play-action; and use the running game to create chunk plays.
“Something that was really shown in the [season-ending] Dallas game was Jahan Dotson caught two quick slants that turned into almost 50 yards of offense, just on two plays,” Rivera said. “And it’s one of those things, you go, that’s what you like.”
As someone who sat through eight interviews before landing his first job as an NFL head coach, Rivera has the experience and desire to afford another up-and-comer his opportunity. When asked about Bieniemy’s struggle to get an offer for a top job, Rivera voiced his support and dismay that he has yet to land an opportunity.
“I’m tremendously surprised,” Rivera said. “To listen to people’s reasoning, saying it’s because he’s under Andy [Reid]’s shadow, I think is unfair. I mean, you have to be willing to give the guy the opportunity more than anything. … I don’t think Eric deserved to have to go through that. But what it is, from what you’re hearing on the grapevine, is he’s looking for an opportunity to work with a defensive coach. So I want to see about that opportunity.”
The Commanders will have to make a decision on star defensive end Chase Young’s near future in the coming weeks. The team has until May 1 to pick up his fifth-year contract option for 2024, which will be worth $17.45 million and guaranteed if and when it’s exercised.
Young received a four-year, fully guaranteed $34.56 million contract when he was drafted second in 2020. After he earned defensive rookie of the year honors and a Pro Bowl selection in his first season, an extensive knee injury sidelined him for 22 games over the 2021 and 2022 seasons.
“You get an opportunity to sit down, look at his tape with our scouts, talk about the way he played,” Rivera said. “What do we see in terms of development and growth? We’re going to sit down with the doctors, with the trainers. Where is he?”
Rivera said the decision about Young’s fifth year will not affect the decision the team must make about defensive tackle Daron Payne, who will be a free agent in March. But Payne’s path could influence the team’s thinking with Young.
Washington picked up Payne’s fifth-year option two years ago, and he played his best this season, in a contract year. Not exercising Young’s fifth year, Rivera said, could be a motivator.
“If you look at what Daron did, why wouldn’t you think of it that way?” Rivera said. “Believe me, that would be my approach, especially looking at what Daron did and the situation he put himself in. … It cost us [with Daron]. But it cost us in a good way because the young man played, he did things the right way.”
Rivera said he’s “optimistic” about keeping Payne but offered few specifics about the team’s plans to try to retain him.
Payne is set to become a free agent in March unless the Commanders first re-sign him to a longer-term contract or use a franchise or transition tag on him.
A new contract could carry an average annual value of $19 million, if not more. A franchise tag — essentially a one-year deal that would allow the team to match another offer sheet Payne might sign and receive draft compensation if he walks — would be around the same amount ($18.937 million). A transition tag, which would give the Commanders only the right of match if Payne signs another offer sheet and no draft compensation, is worth less ($16.068 million).
Rivera has said Sam Howell is the likely starter, but will have to earn the job. The coach’s goal, still, is to get a veteran in the room, and he’s on record saying he would like to keep Taylor Heinicke, a pending free agent.
But taking on a high-priced veteran, either in free agency or via a trade, may be too costly for the Commanders.
“We’re formidable, and we didn’t have a completely healthy quarterback all year,” Rivera said. “We’ve got a stout running game. We’ve got playmakers in position, and we had a young man who showed us that he can spread the ball out and get it out quickly. What’s the risk of spending money on somebody and then all of a sudden it not working out again? Now, are we going to give up on trying to find the right veteran? Absolutely not. If we find the right veteran to come in and add that competition to that group of guys in that room, I think we’re going to see growth.”