ASHBURN, Va. — Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera learned a lesson last summer, one he doesn’t want to repeat. That’s why there will be a quarterback competition, he said, even if Ryan Fitzpatrick will enter training camp with a firm grip on the starting job.
Ever since Washington signed Fitzpatrick in free agency, Rivera has said he would enter camp as the starter — but nothing beyond that is guaranteed. That means a player such as Taylor Heinicke could emerge if Fitzpatrick struggles. Washington also has Kyle Allen, who practiced this spring but admitted he wasn’t fully recovered from a broken ankle last season, and Steven Montez.
Fitzpatrick worked exclusively with the starters this spring while Heinicke was the primary backup, though Allen would sometimes work with the second unit as well.
“It’s going to be a good competition,” Rivera said Thursday. “I look forward to it. It’s going to push our football team and make our football team better. I just feel that going into this knowing we have a proven guy there that has the ability to lead us, but again, we have a guy in Taylor that shows us he can do it. They are going to compete, they are going to push, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Last summer, then second-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins worked exclusively with the starters. Rivera said he wanted Haskins to get as much time with that group as possible, knowing there were no preseason games. In mid-August he officially named Haskins the starter, though in truth there was never a doubt.
Although the coaches were pleased with how Haskins worked in the offseason, they did not see carryover into the regular season and benched him after four games. Allen replaced Haskins, but a broken ankle in his fourth start ended his season. Rivera has often expressed confidence in Allen.
Rivera has said a couple of times that, in hindsight, he wished he had handled last summer differently — even if it was a unique camp because of the circumstances related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The mistake I made was that my approach was wrong,” Rivera said. “I should have made as big a competition as possible, and that’s on me. I wanted to try and find a guy. I thought [Haskins] was ready to take a step and take every opportunity. I try to build that rapport he needed with his teammates, and that would have been something we may have been able to see sooner and could have done something different, perhaps.”
Players and coaches have thus far raved about Fitzpatrick, who has made 146 career starts compared with Heinicke’s two and Allen’s 17. Fitzpatrick has thrown 223 touchdown passes and 169 interceptions. Heinicke’s lone start last season came in a 31-23 playoff loss to Tampa Bay in which he threw for 306 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception and scrambled for another score.
Heinicke won over a number of players, including receiver Terry McLaurin and defensive end Chase Young. He also added 15 pounds of bulk in the offseason, hoping to improve his biggest weakness: durability. He has been hurt in both career starts.
While Fitzpatrick will get the bulk of the first-team reps, Rivera said the team will give others a chance with the starters — in part so in case they must play in September, they will have experience with this group.
“You try to create situations that are going to be as gamelike as possible,” Rivera said. “You want to be able to rotate guys so that everybody gets an opportunity to work with the same group of players. You try to create that energy for guys stepping on the field knowing that they are working with the ones [first-teamers]. That’s one of the things we’ve done in the past that shows how you find out about players.”
They’ll also have three preseason games in which to rotate quarterbacks. That’s something they didn’t have last summer, but Rivera said he needed to handle the situation differently to learn more about the players. That mistake, he said, won’t be repeated.
“I think it would have given us a better idea as to what we had to focus on,” Rivera said. “What we had to hone up, how we need to approach it with our players and position guys. I think that’s the thing we missed was not having an understanding and feel.”