Ron Rivera made a surprise shake-up to his coaching staff Tuesday as he fired defensive line coach Sam Mills III roughly a month before the Washington Commanders’ regular-season opener.
The timing of the decision was highly unusual as Rivera had months to evaluate his assistants and make any changes after the 2021 season. But Rivera said the move was made over a “difference in philosophy,” adding he came to the conclusion the change was needed upon evaluating the offseason and training camp.
Jeff Zgonina, who served as an assistant to Mills, was named the Commanders’ new defensive line coach, Rivera said.
Rivera did not expand on what those philosophical differences were. Mills, though, had been with Rivera dating back to their time in Carolina, when the coach hired Mills in 2011 as the Panthers’ assistant defensive line coach and later promoted him to defensive line coach in December 2018. Rivera then hired Mills again in 2020 upon coming to Washington.
Mills was away from the Commanders in recent days as he had been in Canton, Ohio, to watch his late father, former linebacker Sam Mills, being inducted posthumously into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“Very difficult, I’ve known Sam a long time,” Rivera said. “He’s a very good football coach and I really appreciate everything he’s done. He helped us win a division our first year and then things got tough last year. But there are some things I felt I wanted to change.”
The Commanders’ defensive line severely underperformed in 2021, falling way short of expectations. Edge rushers Chase Young and Montez Sweat combined for only 6 ½ sacks in an injury-plagued campaign. Later in the season, the group unraveled in real time as defensive tackles Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen got into a fight on the sideline during a blowout loss against the Dallas Cowboys.
Rivera said that the group’s underachieving last year did not contribute to Mills’ dismissal. But the coach had frequently referenced players’ maturity as an issue last season, and indicated in January that he believed the defensive line bought too much into its own hype.
Rivera said he did not consult with players beforehand and informed them of the decision in a meeting before practice.
Allen called the timing of Mills’ firing “very surprising.” In the sixth year of his career, the lineman said he’s come to expect the unexpected in the NFL, but added the dismissal was one of the few moments to catch him off guard.
“It’s sad,” Allen said. “I thought me and coach Sam were getting along really well. We were really making some progress as a defensive unit. It’s the NFL. People just have to remember that it’s a great game, but a terrible business. … As a team, we have to keep focus and keep moving forward.”
In Zgonina, Washington will rely on a coach with 17 years of NFL playing experience. After being drafted out of the seventh round in 1993, the former defensive tackle went on to play for seven teams until his last season in 2009. Zgonina began his coaching career with the Houston Texans in 2013 and served as the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive line coach in 2017 and 2018.
Brent Vieselmeyer will now serve as the team’s assistant defensive line coach, Rivera said. The team also has former defensive end Ryan Kerrigan shadowing the defensive line staff and helping out. The team again brought in Hall of Famer Warren Sapp this week to help out after hosting him in June, though Rivera said that was arranged well before Mills’ firing.
“It’s always hard because he is a friend and always will be a friend,” Zgonina said of Mills’ firing.
Rivera said this was the first time he had fired a coach in training camp. The Commanders play their first preseason game of the season, coincidentally, against the Panthers on Saturday. Washington opens the regular season Sept. 11 hosting the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“This was just something that I observed and just felt this needed to be done,” Rivera said.