“The running back spot is going to be by committee,” Rivera told reporters via video conference. “ … J.D. [McKissic], we just happened to put [him] on the chart first.”
Washington, by design, doesn’t have a feature back or a true first-string rusher. Not after it released veteran Adrian Peterson last week. Instead, it has a collection of young but versatile backs in McKissic, Antonio Gibson, Peyton Barber and Bryce Love, who all will be involved in both the passing game and the running game. Their playing time and the order in which it comes could depend as much on their opponent as it does their performance.
The first running back to line up Sunday against the Eagles will be decided largely by offensive coordinator and play caller Scott Turner.
“If all of a sudden Scott decides to go with 12 personnel [one running back, two tight ends] or 21 personnel [two backs, one tight end], you’re going to have a different running back,” Rivera said. “It could be any of those guys on the 53.”
Although the versatility of Washington’s backs has drawn comparisons to the dual-threat ability of star Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, their roles in Turner’s offense will not be the same. McCaffrey accounted for roughly 40 percent of Carolina’s yards from scrimmage last season and received more than half (52.5 percent) of its offensive touches.
“To me, it’s about overall production,” Turner said. “Last year in Carolina we had a guy who is one of the most conditioned athletes I’ve ever been around in my life, so he didn’t really need to leave the field and he performed at a really high level. That’s a unique situation. We got guys that present different skill sets and are different types of players, but they all can do a bunch of different things.
“So you keep them fresh, not only for the game but over the course of a whole season, and just keep those guys coming at the defense.”
In training camp, McKissic was used often on situational downs. Gibson took many first-team reps as he gained comfort in transitioning from wide receiver to running back. Barber earned the praise of coaches for his physicality and blocking. And Love showed promise as a potential every-down back in the future, health permitting.
The dynamic of the group was a driving factor in the decision to release Peterson, but the decision to choose an unofficial depth chart leader?
“Yeah, don’t read too much into the whole thing as a starter,” Turner said. “But J.D. earned that, the right to be named the starter. He came in, and I didn’t know him at all, just watched what we did on a tape, but he’s a professional in every sense of the word. He’s one of the smartest guys we have on our team. He’s getting guys lined up. He’s got a funny sense of humor, too. But he’s done a good job. I’m glad we got him.”
Rivera was not on the field for the early portion of Wednesday’s practice but later joined the group for his first on-field coaching of the week. The 58-year-old coach started cancer treatment Tuesday and missed the team’s first practice in advance of its season opener.
As he begins the process, Rivera said he has found comfort in talking to other coaches who have fought cancer, including Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, who took an indefinite leave of absence while coaching the Indianapolis Colts in 2012 to undergo treatment for leukemia.
“I had a tough day [Tuesday],” Rivera said. “But from what I’ve read from Chuck and heard from Chuck, his was unbelievable. My hat’s off to him because to do what he’s had to do and to get back to where he is, that’s a phenomenal story.
“There’s been other coaches. . . . They talk about the one thing that kept them going was their drive and desire to get out in front of their players every day as much as they could. I’ll tell you what: It was pretty special to get out there today in front of the guys. I was a little late, but when you come out and the guys come up to you and they dab you up and they just want to let you know they’re thinking about you — that’s really cool.”
Rivera earlier spoke to some of his veteran leaders on the team and told them they would have to step up on the days he is absent. The coach also has relied heavily on his staff to help fill the void, including defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, the appointed interim head coach when Rivera is out, and head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion, who has often doubled as Rivera’s chauffeur to the hospital.
“Because I’ve got guys who I can trust, I just feel great. I really do,” Rivera said. “It’s a lesson I learned from John Madden. When you delegate the authority, you have to most certainly set the standard. These guys have gone above and beyond. It’s been good to see that.”
Rivera announced the team’s captains for 2020, as voted on by the players. They are quarterback Dwayne Haskins, right guard Brandon Scherff, defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, strong safety Landon Collins and safety/special teams ace Deshazor Everett.
In early August, Haskins told reporters that it was a goal of his as he sought to prove he could be the team’s starting quarterback and face of the franchise.
“Manifestation is real,” Haskins said on Twitter after the announcement of the team captains. “I mean ask the 13 year old me.”
Injury update: Washington listed three players as limited in practice Wednesday — rookie tackle Saahdiq Charles (calf), cornerback Kendall Fuller (knee) and linebacker Thomas Davis Sr. (calf) — and two others as having practiced in full: defensive tackle Jonathan Allen (knee) and wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden (concussion).