Rivera’s concern lingered throughout the season, almost as if he had known in advance his team would face a stretch of poor health (more than two dozen players and eight coaches landed in the NFL’s coronavirus protocols) and personal tragedy that would decimate any goodwill built from a spate of wins.
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 tight end and in the secondary. But they face questions at linebacker, questions about defensive line depth and of course the unceasing question of whether it will all work this time.
Rivera’s confidence comes from the team’s trials late in the 2021 season and the belief that his players can take “big steps” in his third year as their coach.
“I think the maturity level, more so than anything else, [shows] that these guys are ready to accept the responsibility of it all,” Rivera said during a phone interview from California this month. “… Last year going into this whole thing, my big concern was maturity. And having gone through what we went through … I just kind of feel like this group of guys is ready to take a step.”
Rivera claims to not feel any extra pressure going into Year 3.
“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? Whatever happens, happens.’ But as long as we work hard, play hard and give our best effort, we’ll see what happens. And we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”
Last year, the then-Washington Football Team lost starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick after just 16 snaps because of a hip injury and turned to Taylor Heinicke the rest of the way, save for the one game it started Garrett Gilbert because Heinicke got covid-19. Washington lost six of its first eight games, bounced back for a critical four-game stretch, then lost both star defensive ends, Montez Sweat and Young, to injuries. It also lost most of its defense to coronavirus issues; 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 cope with it all, as evidenced by the in-game fight between its two star defensive tackles in a blowout at Dallas.
But Rivera, though still irked by a belief that his players weren’t given enough credit for overcoming unusual circumstances, also believes those circumstances brought his team closer — and may have set a tone for this season.
“We had a bunch of guys go through some real-life s—, and that was hard,” he said. “It was rough on 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 keep going through this process. …
“I think because we’re a young team, and we’ve had to play a lot of young guys, and we’ve had to go through a lot … and we’re still standing — that gives me confidence.”
The confidence comes, in part, from the skill position players the Commanders have added. It also comes from the potential of their defense and from the veterans they brought in on the offensive line.
In the past, Rivera has cited his third season with the Carolina Panthers in 2013 as reason for optimism with the Commanders. After two losing seasons in Charlotte, Rivera’s Panthers finished 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 puzzle piece, but rounding out the line for protection and surrounding him with playmakers were priorities.
Those priorities followed Rivera to Washington. This offseason, after trading for quarterback Carson Wentz — and taking on 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 powerful running back in Brian Robinson Jr. in the third and found Cole Turner, a 6-foot-5 tight end with a large catch radius, in the fifth. Then they welcomed receiver Curtis Samuel back from groin and hamstring injuries and re-signed star wideout Terry McLaurin, and they hope to have tight end Logan Thomas and Young back from knee injuries soon. (Thomas, Young and center Chase Roullier are likely to begin camp on the physically unable to perform list as they continue to recover, but Samuel is expected to be good to go.)
“If we can stay healthy with our offensive line, get Logan back soon and some of those young guys at tight end to develop, if Terry continues to be the player that he is and we get a healthy Curtis, Dyami [Brown] grows a little bit, Cam [Sims] contributes the way we believe he can and Jahan is the player we believe he can be, we feel like we’ve got a good skill set there,” Rivera said. “The running backs continue to grow and learn, and I like the tandem of guys we have there. Then if Carson can go out and just make good decisions and let his athleticism play for him, I think we can be somebody to contend with.”
Rivera added that scheme and ensuring the Commanders are getting the best out of their talent are among the most important factors.
“Are we putting these guys in the best position to have success? It always goes back to that, too, and that’s the thing that we have to be very cognizant about, because we have a good group and we’ve got some skilled players, but we just don’t know how good we can be yet,” he said.
Rivera said having at least 10 offensive linemen with considerable experience was important, too, because it helped the team last year, when injuries forced it to cycle through five centers. He also has said keeping core players such as McLaurin, defensive tackle Jonathan Allen and Thomas has long been a priority.
“I think we’ve 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? Have they gotten to where they need to be? Going into this, there were a lot of question marks. We obviously had to change a lot of our thinking now that we have Carson. My thought process changed with it, about who we are and who we can be.”
And, of course, adding a quarterback whose skill set fits the scheme was a years-long priority. Wentz will be starting quarterback No. 9 for Washington since Rivera arrived in 2020. After being traded by the Philadelphia Eagles and Indianapolis Colts in successive offseasons, Wentz comes with plenty of unknowns, including whether he can help revive a franchise that has been in the doldrums for much of the past two decades.
Rivera, again, has confidence.
“I know a lot of people don’t give us a lot of credit for that or give us any hope for being any good this year, which is fine,” he said. “But we’re going to fight. We’re going to show up and give everything we are.”