Rivera’s concerns lingered 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 ended up on the NFL’s coronavirus protocols) and personal tragedy would that would decimate any goodwill from which a winning streak was built.
In 2022, a lot will remain the same – on paper. The Commanders turned to another veteran quarterback, found more help at wide receiver and running back, reinforced the offensive line, and added young figures at the tight end and secondary. But they face questions at Linebacker, questions about the depth of the defensive line and, of course, the incessant question of whether it will all work this time.
Rivera’s confidence comes from the team’s late-2021 season trials and the belief his players can make “big strides” in his third year as their coach.
“The level of maturity, more than anything else, [shows] that these guys are willing to take responsibility for everything,” Rivera said during a phone interview from California this month. “…Last year, when I started this whole thing, my big concern was maturity. And after going through what we’ve been through…I just feel like this group of guys is ready to take a step.
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Rivera claims he doesn’t feel any extra pressure in 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’ve been through for two seasons and you’re like, ‘You know what? Whatever happens, will happen.’ But as long as we work hard, play hard and do our best, we’ll see what happens. And we let the shavings fall where they want.”
Last year, then-Washington Football Team lost starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to a hip injury after just 16 snaps and turned to Taylor Heinicke the rest of the way, barring the one game they started Garrett Gilbert because Heinicke was dealing with Covid -19 infected. Washington lost six of its first eight games, recovered for a crucial four-game stretch, and then lost both star defensive ends, Montez Sweat and Young, to injuries. It also lost most of its defenses to coronavirus troubles; shared the pain of safety with Deshazor Everett, who was the driver in an accident that killed his longtime girlfriend; and shared more pain when Sweat’s brother was killed. Washington struggled to cope with all of this, as evidenced by the in-game fight between his two star defensive tackles in a Dallas blowout.
While Rivera is still upset that his players didn’t get enough credit for overcoming unusual circumstances, he also believes those circumstances brought his team closer — and may have set the tone for this season.
“We’ve had a couple of guys who’ve had to go through some real issues and that has been tough,” he said. “It’s been tough for a lot of guys and for us we’re still trying to change and evolve and find our guys and we’ll continue that process. …
“Because we’re a young team and we’ve had to play against a lot of young people and we’ve been through a lot… and we’re still standing – that gives me confidence.”
Confidence comes in part from the skill positions that Commanders have added. It also comes from the potential of their defense and the veterans who put them on offense.
In the past, Rivera has cited his third season with the Carolina Panthers in 2013 as cause for optimism among the Commanders. After two lost seasons in Charlotte, the Rivera’s Panthers finished their division 12-4 in 2013 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 rounding out the protective line and encircling it with playmakers were priorities.
These priorities followed Rivera to Washington. This offseason, after trading for quarterback Carson Wentz — and taking his $22 million fully guaranteed 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 a strong running back to Brian Robinson Jr. in the third, and found Cole Turner, a 6-foot-5-tight end with a big catch radius, in the fifth. They then welcomed receiver Curtis Samuel, who was returning from groin and hamstring injuries, and newly signed star wideout Terry McLaurin, and they’re hoping tight end Logan Thomas and Young will soon be recovering from knee injuries. (Thomas, Young and center Chase Roullier will likely start camp on the physically incapable list while they continue to recover, but Samuel is expected to do well.)
“If we can stay healthy with our offensive line, get Logan back soon and some of those young guys on the tight end to develop if Terry continues to be the player he is and we get a healthy Curtis, Dyami [Brown] grow a little, cam [Sims] is doing as much as we think he can and Jahan is the player we think he can be. We feel like we have good skills there,” Rivera said. “The running backs keep growing and learning, and I like the tandem of guys we have there. Then if Carson can go out there and just make good decisions and let his athleticism play for him, I think we can be someone to contend with.
Rivera added that schema 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 be successful? It always comes back to that and we have to be very aware of that because we have a good group and we have some capable players but we just 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 significant experience because it helped the team last year when injuries forced it to run through five centers. He also said that retaining core players like McLaurin, defensive tackle Jonathan Allen and Thomas has long been a priority.
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“We found quite a lot [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. Did they evolve? Have they gotten to where they need to be? At the beginning there were many question marks. We obviously had to rethink a lot now that we have Carson. My thought process has changed with who we are and who we can be.”
And of course, adding a quarterback whose skills fit the scheme has been a priority for years. Wentz will start at No. 9 quarterback for Washington since Rivera arrived in 2020. After Wentz was traded from the Philadelphia Eagles and Indianapolis Colts in back-to-back offseasons, Wentz brings with him many unknowns, including whether he can help revitalize a franchise that has been in the doldrums for much of the past two decades.
Rivera has confidence again.
“I know a lot of people don’t give us a lot of credit for that or give us hope that we’ll do well this year, which is fine,” he said. “But we will fight. We will show up and give everything we are.”