After Washington’s 7-9 finish and NFC East title last season, Rivera has begun anew, and he has asked his players to do the same as they begin to work toward a new season.
“I was telling a couple of my teammates that you have to come back with a new year mentality,” wide receiver Terry McLaurin said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have success my first two years, but I got to come out with a new year, I got a something-to-prove mentality. That’s how I’ve always been.”
Unlike last year, when offseason workouts and preseason games were eliminated because of the coronavirus pandemic, Washington is enjoying a sense of normalcy, with part of its training camp open to fans.
“Last year in Ashburn, it had a different feel to it,” said tight end Logan Thomas, who signed a new three-year deal before camp started. “Terry made a few plays out there, and you could hear the crowd cheering. The defense tipped a couple balls or Jimmy Moreland had an interception — you could hear the crowd cheering. That’s the stuff that was missing last year. It brings a little energy, a little liveliness to practice. Honestly, it is a pick-me-up when you start to get a little tired and a little bit dogged out.”
Wednesday was the first of four “acclimation” days of training camp for Washington, with helmets but no full pads or full contact. The team held a two-hour morning workout that resembled a minicamp practice — individual work, special teams drills and team drills with starters and backups interspersed — followed by an evening walk-through.
Since he arrived in 2020, Rivera has preached culture and consistency — finding the right players who do things the right way. He also has emphasized tempo and details, to get players to compete at a game speed and to be cognizant of their approach.
“There were some little details that we didn’t pay attention to, and I had to explain it to some of the young guys in particular so they understand it,” he said. “There’s a specific way that we practice. We try to mimic as close as we can to game situations ... by harping on tempo, harping on playing fast, trying to put stress on them so that they learn how to handle and cope with that. That helps. So to me, it’s about making sure we’re getting the right message across to the guys in terms of how we practice.”
At the outset of camp, Rivera said that the team’s evaluation during its brief stay in Richmond will focus heavily on retention. How much do players remember when plays are installed? How much do they remember from coaching in the spring? How quickly do they learn from mistakes?
The recall is especially important for the youngest players, who are adapting to the speed of the pro game and, typically, an expanded playbook.
“Jamin [Davis] stood out right away,” Rivera said of the rookie linebacker, Washington’s first-round pick. “He’s one of the guys that we’re counting on to be able to handle these situations and circumstances. ... It’s one of those things that when you see the guys knowing where to line up, knowing when the motions happen or listening and hearing the defensive checks and slides by the defensive line, then you know that those things are becoming second nature. And that’s important because that tells you that we’re taking the next step.”
Davis is slated to be the team’s middle linebacker, a job that requires him to make the calls and know every nook of the defense. On Wednesday, he took the majority of the reps at the “Mike” with the first-team defense, but the plan, Rivera said in the spring, is to move him around to test him at different spots.
It’s the same plan for many players across the roster, especially the secondary. The team is deep on safeties and has versatile cornerbacks who can move inside and play outside. During team drills, Kendall Fuller was used at outside corner and in the slot, while safety Kamren Curl sometimes played deep and at other times lined up at “Buffalo nickel” as more of a hybrid slot defender.
“There are some things that [defensive coordinator] Jack [Del Rio] is going to be able to do with the defense, some things in terms of personnel groups and matchups,” Rivera said. “I think our guys give us options that can be exciting.”
The offense tested multiple combinations, too, though most eyes were on quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and the deep receiving corps around him, which showed glimpses of its potential. But without wide receiver Curtis Samuel, who is on the physically unable to perform list with a groin injury, and without full-contact drills, Washington’s offense can’t fully take shape.
The progress from even the spring, however, was noticeable. McLaurin believes his time with Fitzpatrick in organized team activities and minicamp helped make his timing with his new quarterback smoother.
“With Fitz, I think one of the best things is he’s confident in his guys around him,” he said. “He really does a good job of empowering us and putting us in good situations to be successful. If there’s a look at the line that may not be good for the play that we’re trying to run, he knows how to get us in the right play. ... As a receiver, you just want a chance and a guy who’s smart, who has confidence in his guys. I think that just kind of just matriculates down throughout the offense.”