Replacing Turner: Looking what Rivera could do to fill offensive coordinator job

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Shortly after the Washington Commanders fired Scott Turner, former coach Jay Gruden was on a local radio station Tuesday to discuss the offensive coordinator’s departure. Specifically, he noted the challenge that Ron Rivera — possibly entering a lame-duck season if the Commanders are sold — could face in filling the position.

“It is difficult,” Gruden told 106.7 The Fan. “Especially if you’re told what to do.” 

The latter part of Gruden’s sentiment holds relevance as Rivera and general manager Martin Mayhew made clear in a press conference Tuesday that they expect the Commanders to be committed to the run in 2023. Rivera called the strategy a “philosophical belief,” while Mayhew suggested that the ideal “formula” for Washington is to run the ball twice as many times as it passes. 

The two men appeared to be doubling down on a run-first approach after Washington finished this past season with the league’s fourth-most rushing attempts and one of the highest rates on early-down runs. 

If Rivera is truly set on relying on the run, then he’ll have to find a coordinator who shares his same fundamental belief.

“If you look at a lot of the teams that do end up at the end where they are, most of ‘em rush for well over a thousand (yards in a season) on offense,” Rivera said hours before Turner’s firing was announced. “And I think they control the tempo of the game and I think that’s what we need to do to win football games. We need to control that tempo of the game. I do believe in a two-back system. 

“I’ve had success with that and I believe we had some pretty good success with it.”

As a coach, Rivera has had four different offensive coordinators between his time in Carolina and Washington: Rob Chudzinski, Mike Shula, Norv Turner and Scott Turner. All four men ran a variation of the “Air Coryell” offense — a scheme that stresses a deep vertical passing attack and a power-based rushing attack. When Rivera hired Norv Turner in 2018, the coach once said the coordinator’s approach “matches with the same philosophy that I’ve grown up in.” 

If Rivera wants to stay within that same style of offense, then perhaps he’ll look to promote from within or reconnect with one of his former staff members. 

Chudzinski, in theory, would make sense — but he hasn’t been in the NFL since 2018 and has spent the past few years as a special assistant to the head coach for Boston College. Shula, meanwhile, is a senior offensive assistant for the Buffalo Bills, though it’s unclear whether Rivera would have any interest in reuniting with a coach he fired in 2018. 

Over his three years in Washington, Rivera has largely stuck to hiring coaches he has previously worked with. The coach’s initial staff in 2020 had a dozen members who coached with him in Carolina. One of the key exceptions to Rivera breaking this pattern was when he hired Jack Del Rio to be the team’s defensive coordinator. 

In other cases, Rivera has hired coaches that he holds ties with but did not work for him in Carolina. Defensive backs coach Chris Harris, for instance, played for Rivera when they were with the Chicago Bears in the mid-2000s.  And last year, the coach tapped Juan Castillo to replace tight ends coach Pete Hoener — even though Castillo, primarily an offensive line coach, had not coached tight ends in almost 25 years. Castillo and Rivera worked together for five years in Philadelphia as up-and-coming coaches. 

If Rivera goes the latter route, then perhaps he’ll take another look at Pat Shurmur — who was part of former Eagles coach Andy Reid’s staff when Rivera was there. 

Before hiring Scott Turner in 2020, a source said, Rivera had an interest in reuniting with Shurmur for Washington’s offensive coordinator job, but Shurmur was never formally interviewed as it was unlikely the coach wanted to stay within the NFC East. Shurmur was coming off a failed two-year head coaching stint with the New York Giants and instead joined Vic Fangio’s staff in Denver for two seasons.

Interestingly enough, Shurmur — who spent last year out of football after being fired by the Broncos — would represent a departure from the Air Coryell scheme as his roots are traced to a West Coast offense. But he has shown a willingness to run the ball: Shurmur’s teams have ranked above average in rushing attempts in seven of his 13 seasons as a coordinator or head coach. 

“The physicality of the game is what makes a good team better or an average team good,” Mayhew said. “When you can out-hit somebody, it gives you a chance to win every game.” 

Whoever Rivera hires, the next offensive coordinator won’t be walking into a perfect situation. The Commanders have a giant need at quarterback and Mayhew said the team needs to get younger along the offensive line. 

But there are pieces in place. As much as Washington wants to run the ball, Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel are an excellent trio of receivers. And Brian Robinson Jr. and Antonio Gibson were an effective 1-2 punch at running back. 

So how much interest will Rivera find in the vacancy? On the radio, Gruden said that coaches are always looking for opportunities — even when they’re not in the best of situations. He compared it to how he became the Jacksonville Jaguars’ offensive coordinator in 2020, despite knowing that Doug Marrone was on shaky ground. Marrone’s staff — including Gruden — was fired at the end of the season. 

The hosts then asked Gruden if he was interested in the opening. 

“Oh yeah, I’d love to coach again,” Gruden said. “Who’s the owner?” 

“Something tells me Dan (Snyder) is not going to be hiring you, Jay,” host Grant Paulsen replied.

“Something tells me I wouldn’t go back even if he was,” Gruden laughed. 

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