Ron Rivera has confidence – confidence in a process and in a list that he thinks he can support.
It wasn’t until a year ago, when Washington opened training camp in Richmond, Va., that the coach expressed a mixture of hope and trepidation for the start of the new season.
Of course, his 2020 team had the early success of a playoff appearance and top-notch defense. He had Rookie of the Year in Chase Young, Returning Player of the Year in Alex Smith and a dare to beat the odds. But last year, Rivera wondered if his team had the maturity to build on their success, to work even harder, to understand that they couldn’t just pick up where they left off.
Rivera’s concern persisted throughout the season, almost as if he knew in advance that his team would face poor health (more than two dozen players and eight coaches landed in the protocols of NFL coronavirus) and to a personal tragedy that would decimate any goodwill built from a winning streak.
So far in 2022, much remains the same – on paper. The Commanders turned to another veteran quarterback, found more help at wide receiver and running back, fortified the offensive line and added young pieces at the tight end and in the secondary. But they face questions about the linebacker, questions about the depth of the defensive line and of course the never-ending question of whether it will all work out this time.
Rivera’s confidence comes from trying out for the team at the end of the 2021 season and believing his players can take “big steps” in his third year as coach.
“I think the level of maturity, more than anything else, [shows] that these guys are willing to accept responsibility for all of this,” Rivera said in a phone interview from California this month. “…Last year, going into all of this, my big concern was maturity. And after going through what we’ve been through…I just feel like this group of guys are ready to take a step ahead.
Rivera claims not to feel any additional pressure at the start of the third year.
“Not after the first year,” he said. “And then not after what we went through last year. You think about what we went through for two seasons, and you say, ‘You know what? What has to happen will happen.’ But as long as we work hard, play hard, and do our best, we’ll see what happens, and we’ll drop the chips where they can.
Last year, the then-Washington football team lost starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick after just 16 snaps to a hip injury and turned to Taylor Heinicke for the rest of the season. way, except for the one game where he started Garrett Gilbert because Heinicke got COVID-19. Washington lost six of its first eight games, rebounded for a four-game critical streak, then lost both star defensive ends, Montez Sweat and Young, to injuries. He also lost most of his defense due to the coronavirus concerns; shared the pain of safety Deshazor Everett, who was the driver in a crash that killed his longtime girlfriend; and shared more pain when Sweat’s brother was killed. Washington struggled to deal with all of that, as evidenced by the in-game fight between its two star defensive tackles during a blowout in Dallas.
But Rivera, while still upset with the belief that his players haven’t been given enough credit to overcome unusual circumstances, also believes those circumstances have brought his team together – and perhaps set the tone for this season.
“We had a group of guys who had real life experiences [expletive], and it was difficult,” he said. “It was tough for a lot of guys, and for us, we’re still trying to change and develop who we are and find our guys, and we’ll continue that process. …
“I think because we’re a young team, and we’ve had to play against a lot of young guys, and we’ve had to go through a lot… and we’re still standing tall – that gives me confidence.”
Confidence comes, in part, from skill position players that commanders have added. It also comes from the potential of their defense and the veterans they brought to the offensive line.
In the past, Rivera cited his third season with the Carolina Panthers in 2013 as cause for optimism with the COs. After two lost seasons in Charlotte, the Rivera Panthers went 12-4 in 2013 to win their division and finished second in the league in points allowed and yards allowed. Drafting an all-pro quarterback, Cam Newton, was the biggest piece of the puzzle, but completing the line of protection and surrounding him with point guards were priorities.
These priorities followed Rivera to Washington. This offseason, after trading for quarterback Carson Wentz — and accepting his fully guaranteed $22 million salary — the Commanders signed veterans Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner to replace Brandon Scherff and Ereck Flowers. They drafted wide receiver Jahan Dotson in the first round, added powerful running back Brian Robinson Jr. in the third and found Cole Turner, a 6-foot-5 tight end with a big catching radius, in the fifth. Then they welcomed wide receiver Curtis Samuel back from groin and hamstring injuries and re-signed Terry McLaurin, and they hope tight end Logan Thomas and Young will be back from knee injuries soon. . (Rivera said Thomas, Young and center Chase Roullier should start camp on the physically unable to perform roster as they continue to recover, but Samuel should be ready to go.)
“If we can stay healthy with our offensive line, get Logan back soon and some of these young tight end guys to develop, if Terry continues to be the player he is and we get a healthy Curtis , Dynami [Brown] grow a little, Cam [Sims] contributes the way we think he can and Jahan is the player we think he can be, we think we have a good skill set there,” Rivera said. “The running backs keep growing and learning, and I like the tandem of guys we have there. Then if Carson can come out and just make good decisions and let his athleticism play for him, I think that we can be someone to wrestle with.
Rivera added that this program and ensuring commanders get the most out of their talent are among the most important factors.
“Are we putting these guys in the best position to succeed? It always comes down to that too, and that’s what we have to be very aware of, because we have a good squad and we have talented players, but we don’t know how good we can be yet. ,” he said.
Rivera said it’s also important to have at least 10 offensive linemen with considerable experience because it helped the team last year when injuries left them running five crosses. He also said keeping core players such as McLaurin, defensive tackle Jonathan Allen and Thomas has long been a priority.
“I think we found a good number of [core players]”, Rivera said. “I don’t think we have all the pieces. … This training camp will be very important for us to see where some of our players are. have they developed? where they need to be? Going there, there were a lot of question marks. We obviously had to change our thinking a lot now that we have Carson. My thought process changed with that, about who we are and who we can be.
And, of course, adding a quarterback whose skillset matches the pattern has been a priority for years. Wentz will start as the No. 9 quarterback for Washington since Rivera arrived in 2020. After being traded by the Philadelphia Eagles and Indianapolis Colts in successive offseasons, Wentz comes with many unknowns, including if he can help revive a franchise that has been in the doldrums for much of the past two decades.
Rivera, once again, has confidence.
“I know a lot of people don’t give us much credit for that or give us any hope of being good this year, which is good,” he said. “But we will fight. We will show up and give all that we are.