The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Ron Rivera, ‘the judgment starts with winning or losing.’ That’s progress.

“Optimism is high,” Coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday, “and you just feed off that kind of energy.” (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

It’s just so hard in Ashburn, where the local professional football franchise resides, to keep the focus on professional football. But take the pulse as that franchise gathered for the first day of its first training camp as the Washington Commanders, and there’s a way to see through all the smoke to something that’s — can we say it out loud? — kinda, sorta, maybe … promising?

“Optimism is high,” Coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday, “and you just feed off that kind of energy.”

Wait. Should this column have a dateline of FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — ? Or maybe GREEN BAY, Wis. — ?

No, this is Ashburn. And for a few moments Wednesday, the attention could be on the football. Carson Wentz is the new quarterback, and there is much to learn about him. Terry McLaurin is the established wide receiver smiling ear-to-ear about his new contract extension. Chase Young is the prize defensive end who may not be back from injury for a bit, and there are questions about when and why.

Those are football storylines about football players, such a respite in these parts. And they lead Rivera to new territory in his Washington tenure: all but promising a winning season. He’s not issuing a number. He’s not promising the playoffs. But he is selling his team’s fan base — or, perhaps, what remains of his team’s fan base — on the idea that the infrastructure and the culture have been installed. Now it’s time to expect results.

Carson Wentz, Commanders’ new QB1, settles in as training camp begins

“The pressure, more so than anything else, is just winning, is being successful,” Rivera said. “And if it comes to a number, so be it.”

Here’s a number: 10. It says here that’s not an unreasonable win total for 2022. The schedule includes non-division home games against Jacksonville (to start the season), Minnesota, Atlanta and Cleveland, and non-division trips to Detroit, Chicago and Houston. Combined record of those teams in 2021: 39-79-1, for a .332 winning percentage. Add in two games against the perennially rebuilding New York Giants, who were 4-13 a year ago, and it’s not hard to find at least six wins in those nine games, right? Go 4-4 in the other eight — two against Dallas, two against Philadelphia, home to Tennessee and Green Bay and at Indianapolis and San Francisco — and there’s your total of 10.

History would tell us there have been no easy wins for Washington this century, whether the team went by the outdated old name or the Football Team replacement. That’s not likely to change as the Commanders. History would also tell us that predicting a 10-win season for this franchise borders on foolish, given that it has won 10 games in the 2000s just twice — 2005, in the second year of Joe Gibbs 2.0, and 2012, when Robert Griffin III was a comet of a rookie.

So even with a 17th game making the path to 10 wins slightly easier, it’s a risky notion. But combine the pillowy softness of the schedule with an upgrade at the sport’s most important position — and whatever you think of Wentz and the price paid to obtain him, he’s an upgrade over Taylor Heinicke — and it’s far from lunacy to think an outfit that went 7-10 during a 2021 season in which it was ravaged by the coronavirus, injuries and personal tragedies could win three more games a year later.

Yeah, it’s the first day of training camp. July isn’t a month in which the word “playoffs” should necessarily be uttered. But don’t hide from optimism. Embrace it. It’s a rare commodity here.

“I mean, we all know what we’re working for,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said. “We’re not going to act like we don’t think about it. We understand that the goal is to win the division and move on through the playoffs.”

That’s not a prediction many would make. But the fact that it doesn’t sound downright ludicrous as an aspiration is a measure of progress. On Tuesday, Rivera snapped at a question about whether this season was “playoffs-or-bust” by saying: “Why put pressure on ourselves? Why don’t we just leave it at winning?”

We’re into semantics already. But the point is this: The coach has peddled the idea that the time for a significant step forward is now. Go for it.

See how far we have gotten into a Commanders column without mentioning investigations by the NFL or Congress? Or the owner, who’s still in some version of exile? Rivera’s chief job upon his arrival in January 2020 was to instill professionalism and dignity to a franchise that lacked both. In Ashburn, where wildfires break out constantly in every corner of the building, that’s nearly impossible, and it was refreshing to hear Rivera address that honestly this week.

“Being in the news and people putting it in the news makes it hard for what we do,” he said.

That’s a reality: Coaching and playing in Washington is harder than in most other places. The owner and the environment he created over so many years have made it that way.

Commanders finally back on the field after a turbulent summer

Which makes getting to a day such as Wednesday — not too hot, the new quarterback under center, the focus on football, of all things — a tough road because so much superfluous stuff has to be pushed aside to make football the centerpiece. But here it is. The resulting playoff possibilities can build or wane over the course of the season. For now, they underpin everything.

“You have goals, high expectations,” Wentz said. “You have a lot of that. But then you come out here, and it’s like, ‘Okay, how do I get better today?’ You have these long-term goals, but then you can’t look too much at the future or look too much ahead because you’ve got to do what’s required of you at that moment — within each play, within each practice, within each day.

“So I try not to think too big-picture like that because you can overlook some things that are right in front of you.”

Wise strategy, New Guy. Because the big picture hasn’t been great for a long, long time. It’s naive to say it will change in one training camp or one season. But Rivera has assembled a decent group and sent out a clear message that the nonsense that dogs this franchise must be irrelevant in meeting rooms and at team meals. Maybe it could even be replaced in conversations among fans.

“The important thing is: It’s football,” Rivera said. “I’m here to be judged on that, okay? The judgment starts with winning or losing.”

In the cancer-and-coronavirus-ravaged seasons of 2020 and ’21, judging Rivera and his staff on the football seemed almost secondary. Now that time has arrived. Enjoy it. Who knows what distraction awaits next month or next week — or five minutes from now?