The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From trash talk to Kanye, sounds tell the story of Commanders camp

Early in Commanders training camp, Coach Ron Rivera has been as conscious about what he's hearing from his team as what he's seeing. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The first sound every morning at training camp in Ashburn — other than planes rumbling overhead and cicadas crying for mates — is a heavy, mechanical thunk. Then it’s quiet, quiet, quiet until thwack, a football lands in a punt returner’s arms. A few rookies and long shots are on the field alone until everyone else meanders out in small groups, adding the low hum of early-morning office chatter to the harmony.

Nine o’clock: air horn. Players plod through stretch lines to the beats of rap producer Mike Will Made It and the verses of Kanye West. Then the speakers turn down, the coaches turn up, and the whistle-shrieking, player-shouting, pad-crunching, kick-booming, crowd-oohing orchestra of a football practice builds for nearly two hours until defensive end Montez Sweat blows up a play in the backfield and screams, “Don’t put no f---ing tight end on me! Do not put no f---ing tight end on me!”

In late July, when pads aren’t on and coaches aren’t game-planning and position battles aren’t swaying with every snap, the sights of training camp can be low-calorie. The first three days included some impressive plays — especially from cornerback Kendall Fuller, wide receiver Jahan Dotson and Sweat — but when the defense dominated Thursday, Coach Ron Rivera was more concerned by his ears than his eyes.

After Sweat and others chirped the offense hard, Rivera said there was “a fine line” between constructive and destructive feedback. In the post-practice huddle, he told players to win the rep, “wolf a little bit” and then explain to their teammates how they had beaten them.

“We now should be stepping in that direction,” he told reporters. “We should have gotten past those young years of thumping the chest and all that. Now it’s about putting my arm around [my teammate] … and helping my teammate to understand how to be a better football player.”

Washington’s camp has been distinct for its new voices. Carson Wentz, not Ryan Fitzpatrick, is yelling: “Green 80! Green 80!” Safety Darrick Forrest, not former special teams ace Deshazor Everett, calls out protections on punts. The colorful, deafening instruction of retired tight ends coach Pete Hoener has been replaced by the relatively quiet, patient words of Juan Castillo, leaving offensive line coach John Matsko as one of the staff’s last salty, old-school members.

“I don’t f---ing care whose fault it is! Fix it. And don’t be f---ing funny about it!” Matsko recently yelled at his line before kicking a young lineman out of a drill.

During 11-on-11, offensive coordinator Scott Turner will call out the personnel grouping — usually “11! 11! 11!” for three wide receivers, one running back and one tight end — and relay the play call to Wentz through a walkie-talkie. They stand about five feet apart, but because Turner calls plays from a skybox during the season, they practice radio communication.

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Before one play Friday, the line false-started, and Turner seemed to think it might have been partly because the team is adjusting to Wentz’s voice.

“New cadence, guys,” Turner said. “Hang in there. Hang in there.”

As the offense gets set, a safety, usually Kam Curl, alerts the defense to the personnel. Rivera and the secondary blamed the unit’s poor 2021 season on poor communication, and the defensive backs have been loudly coordinating assignments early in camp. On one play Friday, Fuller saw something from the offense and yelled across the field to second-year corner Benjamin St-Juste: “Stay up! Stay up!”

The defensive backs are led by coach Chris Harris, who probably is the single loudest voice on the field for every practice. He usually stands about 20 yards behind his players and alternates between strategy general and hype man.

“Two man, three man!” he yelled Friday when the offense went five wide receivers.

“Shot coming!” he yelled when he anticipated a deep pass.

“We concede f---ing nothing!” he said, over and over.

The staff has other yellers — running backs coach Randy Jordan, special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor and Matsko — but no one is as uncontainable as Harris. He sprints around the field, doling out compliments and coaching points. If his dialogue were written like lyrics, they would read, “DON’T LET HIM GET INSIDE NOW!” or “YESSIR!”

(On Thursday after practice, Jordan went to Harris’s office. Jordan: “I said: ‘Hey, man. You’re doing too much. You’re doing too much. You’re jumping up and down. I mean, come on, man.’ So he said, ‘Why weren’t you jumping up and down?’ I said, ‘Because I ain’t have nothing to jump up and down for!’ ”)

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On Friday, after two days of sparse and relatively quiet crowds, the number of fans swelled to a few hundred. One group provided a steady stream of commentary, praising rookie quarterback Sam Howell (“How about QB2 out here?”) while cracking jokes about Taylor Heinicke’s arm strength (“That joint was in the air for an hour”) and the new Guardian Caps now mandated for certain positions by the NFL Players Association, which have quieted the clicking of helmets in the trenches (“Those made by Michelin?”). They saw wide receiver Dax Milne — who reportedly is dating the ex-girlfriend of his former college teammate Zach Wilson — catch a pass and hollered, “Mr. Steal Yo Girl!”

One of the only times they quieted was after Wentz threw a swing route way over a running back’s head.

“I am tired of seeing this!” one fan shouted.

“We not doing that, bro!” another replied. “He’s our QB.”

A few plays later, Sweat burst into the backfield again, and if it were the regular season, he could have delivered a punishing hit. On Thursday, during a similar play, he had pulled up and launched into a rant: “I love this s---! I love this s---! I do! I do! I’m built different!” But on Friday, he pulled up and kept it relatively low-key, yelling: “Oooh! They see it!”

Rivera, seeming to notice the switch, didn’t have any words. He just grinned.

Caroline Pineda contributed to this report.