Their co-workers — otherwise known as the Redskins‘ players — had mostly already departed, via a series of black shuttle buses that cover the three miles from Washington’s team hotel to its practice facility four times a day. But the Redskins coaches are no longer tethered to that dark line of idling vehicles. Instead, they’ve joined Richmond’s bike-riding millennials on the city streets. And they love it.
“I mean, I feel like a kid again,” said tight ends coach Wes Phillips.
“It’s unbelievable,” said defensive coordinator Joe Barry. “I just literally unplug, forget about life and just zone out.”
“And the other thing is, it’s a little bit therapeutic,” said special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica, the founder of this burgundy bike gang. “When you’re riding, that’s where a lot of your ideas come from. You know, you hear about people who put their headphones on and run? Well, we get on the bike for 15 minutes and think.”
The crew got its start when Kotwica and special teams assistant Brad Banta arrived in Washington two summers ago. Kotwica had grown fond of his bike rides to the Jets’ old practice facility in Cortland, N.Y., so he wanted to keep riding. Downtown Richmond isn’t exactly Cortland — there are one-way streets and double-parked cars and city buses (and, as it turns out, exceptionally prompt parking-meter enforcers) — but Kotwica and Banta preferred 12 miles a day on their bikes to the stale shuttle-bus routine.
When Barry arrived last summer, he joined their ranks. (The defensive coordinator is now so devoted to his daily bike ride that he sent two visitors ahead on a shuttle bus Wednesday morning, and then went back inside the hotel to get his ride.) Other members of the coaching staff began watching with jealousy as the men whizzed past. “I was sitting on that shuttle watching these bikes go by, and I said I’m not doing this again,” Phillips said.
“And then this year, the next thing you know we’ve got the Tour de Richmond going up and down the streets,” Kotwica said.
Indeed, virtually the whole staff now rides to work. There’s Phillips and linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti, defensive assistant Aubrey Pleasant and offensive assistants Kevin Carberry and Shane Waldron. Outside linebackers coach Greg Manusky might have the most distinctive wheels, a low-riding, light-purple, Giant bike that sometimes loses its seat. (“There’s no Pee Wee Herman bikes in there, except Manusky’s is pretty close,” Kotwica said.) Offensive coordinator Sean McVay bought a bike off one of the team’s equipment managers before training camp; he and Barry meet in the lobby of the team hotel every morning and then leave together.
Head Coach Jay Gruden even got in the mix this season, joining his staffers during their sometimes harrowing trips to and from practice.
“It’s a wild — what is it? — a wild hog ride? A wild toad ride?” Gruden said with a grin. “It’s a dangerous ride up the streets. The traffic, and car doors opening, going the wrong way on a one-way street, running stop signs. It’s pretty dangerous.”
Not to put too much meaning on a daily commute, but there’s also a certain amount of unity that comes along with all of this. What felt like coaching-staff uncertainty last summer — with a new defensive coordinator and a head coach under fire — has somehow become boring tranquility this summer. Gruden has already outlasted three of Washington’s past five head coaches. His staff is virtually unchanged from last year’s division-title winner. Players frequently praise the staff’s approach. And seeing the men smiling at each other as they cruise around Richmond makes it hard to doubt them when they talk about their fondness for each other.
“We’re as close a staff as I’ve ever been a part of,” Phillips said. “And I think that all starts with the head man, the guy doing the hiring, and hiring his type of guys. We’re all different, we all have our own style, but we all kind of fit his mold.”
To be fair, Gruden gave me a puzzled look when I asked about unity-through-bike-riding; “I don’t do a whole lot of talking when I’m on my bike,” he said. “I’m paying attention to traffic coming at me.”
But the ritual isn’t driving staffers apart, anyhow. McVay and Barry talk about their plans for the upcoming practice during their daily rides; one day this week they discussed red-zone packages en route, and another time they talked about two-minute drills. Other coaches do the same. (“There’s a lot of good discussion that goes on during that time that sometimes maybe you don’t get maybe on the bus with everybody around,” Kotwica said.) The coaches have gotten caught in the rain together, and they’ve helped each other with their equipment. (“We did pop a tire, and we popped a couple chains,” Kotwica noted, “but internally we’ve got a little pit crew that can take care of all that stuff. So we watch out for one another.”)
Other than Gruden, they usually don’t get recognized on the streets, although I did see one fan calling a friend on Wednesday to register his McVay-on-a-bike sighting. Some drivers have apparently thought the men were fans riding to watch practice, while others have shouted out good-luck wishes. There are different preferred routes; some coaches like going over cobblestone, some like riding past this city’s monuments, and others like to pedal past VCU housing. It’s mostly uphill to practice, and mostly downhill to the hotel, and “you can get going where you go the same speed as the cars if you hit the lights at the right time,” McVay said.
Players, of course, are well aware of all this, and they smile at the routine. One said it looks like a big summer camp, while another approvingly compared the group rides to corporate wellness programs. And no, this doesn’t have much to do with the upcoming football season. But it sure makes about a dozen temporary Richmond residents enjoy their daily commute.
“It’s therapeutic, but also I’ve come up with some good blitzes on my bike ride home,” Barry said. “So I love it. And I can eat like a pig at snack — because I know I’m getting a workout.”