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After two losing seasons, Ron Rivera is optimistic Washington can make a Year 3 leap

Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera walks off the field after Sunday's loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Despite two losing seasons, one brief playoff appearance, continued uncertainty at quarterback and a slew of on-field and off-field issues for the Washington Football Team, Coach Ron Rivera remains optimistic the team will see significant improvement in Year 3.

“I’d like to believe so,” he told reporters during a conference call Monday. “To me, there’s a lot of things that we’ve been working on. A lot of things that we feel good about. There are some things that were out of our control this year that really hampered us. But at the end of the day, if you map things out, you plan things out and this is really what we believe, I don’t see why not.”

Washington’s 20-16 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday eliminated any remaining hope of a postseason berth and created even more questions about the team’s future. After a slow start to the season, Washington returned from its Week 9 bye to win four consecutive games and appeared to be a team on the rise. But amid a coronavirus outbreak and after injuries to many key players, Washington fell apart when it began a critical stretch of divisional games, losing four straight.

Before the start of the season, even before the start of training camp, Rivera began to publicly question the “maturity” of his team and how it would respond to adversity.

Washington has faced plenty of it since Week 1, when it lost starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to a season-ending hip injury. And it would face even more with an array of on-field errors and headlines away from football, including an ongoing Drug Enforcement Administration investigation into two of its trainers, the leaking of racist emails from years ago involving former team president Bruce Allen and pressure from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform for the NFL to release a written report from the investigation into the team’s previous workplace culture.

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When asked Monday of the biggest challenge since he arrived two years ago to revamp Washington’s football operations, Rivera chuckled and said, “Honestly, it just hasn’t been what’s been on the field but [what] has been off the field, and that’s tough sometimes, too.” He mentioned injuries to key players, a hindrance that many teams experience and have little control over.

But as focus shifts from this season to the next, Rivera cited player “fit” as a priority as he and his front-office staff evaluate the next steps.

“Well, I think part of it is … the offensive structure that was here when we got here was different from what we do,” he said. “The defensive structure was different from what we do. You try to take those guys and see if they fit, see if they mesh with what you want to do. In some cases, they have. In other cases, they haven’t.”

In his first season, with a staff composed of many of the assistants he had with the Carolina Panthers, Rivera set out to determine how much of the roster he inherited in Washington would fit in the new schemes, as it transitioned to Scott Turner’s Air Coryell offense and Jack Del Rio’s 4-3 defense.

The finer details, Rivera indicated Monday, are developed early in the process.

In the spring, Washington had most of its roster, save for a few absences including defensive ends Chase Young and Montez Sweat, participate in its voluntary workouts. Rivera reminded that organized team activities were not required and told players it was a personal choice. He also rewarded those who did attend by ending the workouts a week early, an indication he valued players’ attendance as the team sought to rebuild its roster.

“One thing that we have to understand is just how important the offseason is for us,” Rivera said Monday. “Hopefully the covid situation will be in control. Hopefully it won’t be a battle to get guys to be here when we’re working together so we can develop this cohesion that you need to go forward. There’s a lot of things that come about when you do get together during those nine weeks that you have as far as OTAs and minicamp are concerned. Those are valuable. … It’s time I think that we see this team start to take that big step forward.”

But the “fit” of some players may also require time. The hope, according to one person with direct knowledge of the coaches’ thinking, is that player accountability and ownership will naturally start to show more in Year 3.

Rivera said Monday that his plan for Washington hasn’t changed and that much of his optimism for Year 3 is born out of his experience with the Panthers. They went 6-10 and 7-9 in Rivera’s first two seasons as head coach. In Year 3, Carolina jumped to 12-4.

Washington finished its first season with Rivera with a 7-9 record and sits at 6-10 this season.

Among the many differences between the franchises, however, is a major one: Carolina had an MVP quarterback in Cam Newton. Washington has had six different starting quarterbacks since Rivera arrived and is still searching for its future quarterback.

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The team has one game remaining, against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, and although it no longer carries playoff implications, Rivera said his goal is twofold: to win, and to further evaluate lesser-known players.

“I think that’s one of the things that we talked about today as a coaching staff was: ‘Hey guys, we want to try and go out and set a tone early on and see what happens,’ ” Rivera said. “ ‘But at some point, just understand, we’d like to see some guys, and if there’s guys that you want to see specifically, make sure we plan that out and we map it out.’ … You want to play to win, but you also want to play for the future.”

Taylor Heinicke will start Sunday, but Rivera didn’t rule out the possibility of giving backup Kyle Allen, a soon-to-be restricted free agent, some playing time too. And he didn’t rule out additional moves in the future, such as moving first-round rookie linebacker Jamin Davis out of the “Mike,” or middle linebacker position, to free him of the extra “pressures” of being the quarterback of the defense and finding more ways to “optimize the talents” of Young, who is recovering from an ACL injury, and Sweat.

“You’d like to think by the third year your first two [draft classes] are ready to be on the field all the time,” Rivera said. “That’s kind of what you hope. I also hope to be able to couple them with a few guys that were here before and then a few guys that you brought to add on.

“I know expectations will be high. I know people will say: ‘Well, it’s your third season. This is what happens in the third season.’ And, again, I get it. At the end of the day, we have some holes that we want to fill. We have some players we want to make sure are the right kind of guys that are going to be out on the football field. But that’s all part of the process I believe in.”

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.