The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ron Rivera is confident in Washington’s roster upgrades but has questions about its maturity

Washington Football Team Coach Ron Rivera says he still has concerns about his team's maturity level ahead of Sunday's season opener. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Ron Rivera was distracted and rightfully so. One of his starting wide receivers and newest roster additions, Curtis Samuel, just limped off the field because of a lingering groin injury, days before the Washington Football Team opens its season against the Los Angeles Chargers at FedEx Field.

“Sorry, just writing these notes real quick,” Rivera said, glancing up from his phone as he sat in the team’s indoor practice bubble.

It was Wednesday afternoon, and Washington had just finished one of its final tuneups of the summer, with a new quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick and a revamped roster. Unlike last season, Rivera’s first as Washington’s coach, this team had the benefit of a mostly normal offseason, with offseason practices, minicamp, a full training camp and three preseason games that shed some of the mystery of its plan for 2021.

But as Rivera sat cross-legged, punching notes into his phone with a stern expression, he reiterated something he had said several times during the lead-up to the season: This team — while faster and maybe more talented — is still unknown.

“Sure, we played preseason games,” Rivera said in an interview. “But still, you don’t know until it’s for real on Sunday. That’s when you start to find out, and as I’ve said, my big question is our maturity level.”

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Rivera used the “M” word the first day of training camp. He used it again after Washington’s first preseason game, again after its second game, again before its preseason finale and once more at the close of camp. Like his many mantras and slogans, Rivera wants this message to stick.

“One problem about the preseason is you never know what happens when they don’t have success. You know what I’m saying?” he said. “How are they going to handle it? How are they going to react to it? Because there are really no consequences in preseason like there are in the regular season. The regular season, these count. There are teams that have gone 4-0 in the preseason and have gone 0-16 [in the regular season].”

The Cleveland Browns did in 2017. But the 2021 Washington Football Team is not Cleveland of four years ago — certainly not after its offseason moves to bolster the offense and retool the defense.

After Washington lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first round of the playoffs, Rivera told reporters his to-do list included evaluating not just the team’s talent but also its scheme. Did the system get the most out of its personnel?

To address both questions, Rivera and his new front-office staff signed and drafted players with speed. That was particularly true in the receiving corps. Washington added four new pass-catchers who (when healthy) may be the playmakers Washington sorely needed.

“With what we do schematically in talking with the coordinators, we feel very good about it. With the personnel we have, there are some things that we can do now because of where we are,” he said. “I mean, look at the way Curtis was used, and we get a guy like Dyami [Brown] or DeAndre [Carter] who can do some of those things. So you feel really good about that.

“That’s a big plus because they open the playbook up and give [offensive coordinator] Scott [Turner] a little more creativity.”

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Washington’s offseason moves were intentionally built around its biggest unanswered question: quarterback. After cycling through four starters last season, Washington signed the journeyman Fitzpatrick to a one-year deal to, at the very least, hold down the position until 2022.

“We looked at him as a guy that, ‘Okay, if we get all the pieces in place, can he manage and help develop and grow?’ ” Rivera said. “A lot like what Alex [Smith] did for us when he was on the field. Not only did he manage and help develop players, when we needed him to, he made plays for us.

“That’s what we’re looking for from Ryan — a guy that can manage, control and help share some of his wisdom, some of his insight with our younger guys and help develop the team. And at the same time make big plays. And if it continues and things go well, who’s to say it doesn’t happen again next year?”

Rivera has quickly shaped all three phases of the roster to fit his vision, most notably on defense, where Washington drafted a potential three-down linebacker in Jamin Davis and all but overhauled the secondary.

Rivera has said he views Davis as Washington’s version of Luke Kuechly, the do-it-all linebacker he had in Carolina, but the coach has urged patience with the rookie as he learns the scope of the “Mike,” or middle linebacker, position. The surprise this year has been Cole Holcomb, one of the few holdovers from the previous coaching regime. Rivera said he has “ascended” quicker than he thought he would.

“He’s underrated by a lot of people that aren’t in this building. We love where he is,” defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said of Holcomb. “ … The improvement he made, the confidence he’s gained, right now I think he’s ready to have an outstanding year for us.”

But the most noticeable change on defense probably will be in the secondary after the team added veteran cornerback William Jackson III in free agency. Washington has remained coy about its plan for the back end of its defense, and it’s unlikely Del Rio’s scheme changes significantly (Washington used zone coverage the ninth most of NFL teams last season). But with Jackson’s history of playing press-man coverage and the versatility of cornerbacks Kendall Fuller and Torry McTyer to play outside as well as in the slot, Washington has the personnel to more frequently disguise its coverages presnap and use different sub-packages.

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“Defensively, we can be a little more unpredictable,” Rivera said. “Last year, we got to a point where it was pretty predictable what we were doing because we weren’t quite where we needed to be with the talent we had on the field.”

Rivera believes the crux of the team, though, is in the trenches.

“It’s both fronts, the offensive and defensive lines, I really do,” Rivera said. “How those guys play will dictate how we do. Both offensively and defensively, they’ve accepted that role because so much has been put into that, and they realize and recognize how important that is.”

A year ago, Rivera opened the season by beginning cancer treatments that progressively sapped his energy and strength over the course of the season. He enters this season with renewed strength and gratitude, but he still has a bit of fatigue, in addition to some worry over the coronavirus pandemic. He is immunocompromised because of the treatments, and NFL stadiums are expected to be filled with fans this year — with most, including FedEx Field, not requiring proof of vaccination for entry.

Rivera has been vocal about the coronavirus vaccinations and his concern about some of his players who have “dug in their heels” in declining to get immunized. But as of late August, the team had 90 percent of its players at least partially vaccinated.

This week, Rivera said, his focus has remained narrow. After 21 months of reshaping the Washington Football Team, Rivera believes his team is further ahead than he envisioned it would be when he arrived in January 2020. But he wants to see more. Success, he says, will be determined by wins and perhaps another playoff berth, by statistical improvement on offense and another good year for the defense. But more so, it will be determined by the standard.

“It’s the maturity level,” Rivera said. “I want to see that continue to grow, and I want to see them play consistently. I want them to keep playing hard.

“I do feel like we’re a step ahead, but you never know until you play on Sunday. That’s what’s so important about playing this Sunday is so we can really find out where we are.”