ASHBURN — Ron Rivera likes to sell a message. And last year, the Washington Commanders coach repeatedly wondered if his group would be “mature” enough to handle the elevated expectations coming off a playoff appearance. As they regressed, Riviera pinpointed their immaturity as a reason.
But that was last season.
“I don’t have that same kind of concern,” Rivera said.
As the Commanders broke for training camp Thursday — giving players and coaches roughly six weeks off before they are due to return in late July — Rivera said he believes his players have outgrown the problems that plagued the team a year ago. Over the course of the offseason, through voluntary workouts and mandatory minicamp, the coach said he sees a group that looks “comfortable and confident” heading into the break.
That could be key for Rivera, whose theme-of-the-season message this year appears to be embracing the idea that the Commanders will take a big jump in his third season at the helm.
The two-time coach of the year underwent a similar leap at his last stop in Carolina, when the Panthers went from 7-9 to 12-4.
“What I really appreciate is the confidence in which a lot of these younger guys have seemed to grasp onto the things that we do,” Rivera said Thursday. “You see that they’ve matured in terms of their understanding, their feel for who we can be. That’s the biggest thing I like, I really do like their confidence.”
For the Commanders to actually make significant strides, quarterback Carson Wentz will have to be the solution the team’s brass hoped for when acquiring him from the Indianapolis Colts. Wentz has looked like an upgrade this spring over former starter Taylor Heinicke. Wentz’s arm strength and ability to get the ball out quickly are apparent.
Though Wentz came with baggage — his tenure in Indianapolis ended after just one year — quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese said the signal-caller has taken advantage of a fresh start.
Wentz isn’t the only key to Washington’s success. Rivera said he was unsure if defensive end Chase Young, tight end Logan Thomas and center Chase Roullier, all starters and all injured, would be available to participate in training camp.
Young, in particular, figures to be vital to the defense.
The unit played at a significantly higher rhythm when Young hit his stride in 2020 — a stride the former defensive rookie of the year had trouble finding in his second season.
The tone from players has been markedly different this offseason, too. In 2021, Montez Sweat set lofty expectations with talk that he and Young could break the all-time sack record for a tandem.
That’s believed to be 39.
Young and Sweat finished with 6½.
“I think it was a bold statement,” Sweat said Wednesday when asked about the remark. “I still feel like we’re capable of those things. But I do feel like having the main goal of winning (matters) and all of that will play itself out.”
If there was a moment this spring when it looked like Rivera was about to set a new theme for his team, it was earlier this month when the coach interrupted practice to lash out at safety Jeremy Reaves for a hard hit on wideout Dyami Brown. Rivera gathered the team and, in an expletive-filled rant, urged them to play with discipline.
But by the time Rivera cooled down, when he met with reporters later that morning, the coach downplayed the notion that his team lacked discipline. The hit and the speech were just relative to that day’s practice, he said.
A week later, Rivera had called out Reaves again — but this time as an example of someone who played with confidence throughout the spring.
“We got here and it was a very young team,” defensive backs coach Chris Harris said. “It’s a maturation process, the culture that Coach Rivera is building. The guys are buying in and understanding. You see a growth process, especially in the secondary. … You are seeing a difference.
“Guys are growing up. They’re talking a little different. They act a little different, which is a testament to Coach Rivera and the culture he’s building here.”