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Washington Football Team eager for fans, competition at training camp in Richmond

Washington Football Team Coach Ron Rivera keeps an eye on his players during a minicamp practice last month. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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It was only a year ago that Ron Rivera’s first training camp as the Washington Football Team’s coach began in the parking lot outside its Ashburn headquarters, where he greeted many players whom he had never met in person. They hadn’t had organized team activities or minicamp practices together. They wouldn’t have any preseason games and certainly wouldn’t have fans attend camp practices.

Rivera’s second training camp will hardly be normal, but it will more closely resemble the NFL summers that took place before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

This week, Washington will return to Richmond, where it held part of its training camps for seven years before the pandemic hit. The team will hold a conditioning test for players Tuesday, then will hold seven non-padded practices and walk-throughs that will be open to fans Wednesday through Saturday. Washington will then return to Ashburn and hold the rest of camp at its headquarters, without fans.

Although Washington’s stay in Richmond will be brief and still will have some restrictions — fans must be more than 20 feet away from players and coaches — it’s billed as a “welcome back” celebration.

The question is whether the new normalcy will last.

As coronavirus vaccination rates stall across the United States, Washington has had one of the lowest percentages of vaccinated players in the NFL. In early July, only 36 percent of its players had received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to a person familiar with the situation. That rate has since improved; none of the 32 NFL teams has a vaccination rate below 50 percent. All of Washington’s coaches and football operations staff have been inoculated.

The NFL has not mandated that players be vaccinated, but it has heavily incentivized it. Those not fully vaccinated will face significant restrictions that will limit their travel and interaction with teammates and coaches — and put their team at risk of forfeiture with an outbreak.

“The disadvantage will only be created if we break protocols,” Rivera said in June, when he enlisted a leading vaccine researcher to talk to players and coaches. “… Would we like them to get vaccinated? Yes. I think it’s important. But again, each guy has to make their own decisions for themselves and what they think is best. At that point, we live with it and we’ll live with the situation and circumstances.”

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Although Washington had among the fewest positive coronavirus cases in the league last year, it still felt disruptions brought on by the pandemic. Without any on-field time during the offseason or any preseason games, positional battles were limited to camp — if they existed at all. Washington went without a true competition at quarterback, instead opting to give Dwayne Haskins as many reps as possible.

“I think that’s the thing we missed, not having an understanding and feel,” Rivera said. “The mistake I made was that my approach was wrong. I should have made as big a competition as possible, and that’s on me. I wanted to try and find a guy.”

Rivera has again preached competition at quarterback (and most positions), but this year he has an experienced starter in 38-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick, who signed a one-year deal in free agency. Still unclear for Washington is his backup. Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen started at different points last season, and both will vie for the backup job. And this year they’ll have the benefit of preseason games to prove themselves.

“Last year, we played with four [starting quarterbacks]. I don’t want to do that again,” offensive coordinator Scott Turner said during offseason workouts. “… Those guys have to make consistent decisions and throw the ball accurately.”

The development of Washington’s offense warrants attention as Turner adjusts to a new quarterback along with a deeper receiving corps and an altered offensive line. The last spot or two on the wide receiver depth chart will be up for grabs, along with the starting jobs at right tackle and left guard.

The defense is still Washington’s forte, and it has a chance to be even stronger this year. But it, too, has plenty of unanswered questions. Camp will be a testing ground for many young players, including first-round rookie Jamin Davis, who could be the team’s new middle linebacker, a role that requires him to essentially be the signal caller of the defense. Practices also could bring clarity to a secondary that was overhauled again — including the role of safety Landon Collins, who is expected to be back for the start of camp following his recovery from an Achilles’ tendon injury, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

Competition, Rivera hopes, will provide answers.

What to read about the Washington Commanders

Exclusive: An employee of Washington’s NFL team accused Commanders owner Daniel Snyder of asking for sex, groping her and attempting to remove her clothes, according to legal correspondence obtained by The Post. A team investigation concluded the woman was lying in an attempt to extort Snyder.

Capitol Hill: Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, announced that the committee intends to issue a subpoena to compel the testimony of Snyder.

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Penalized: The NFL fined Commanders head coach Ron Rivera $100,000 and docked the team two OTA practices in 2023 for excessive hitting during their offseason program this year, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.