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Commanders players again try to drown out controversy, focus on football

Commanders Coach Ron Rivera preached focus and discipline to his players Thursday as the team faces yet another controversy. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
5 min

In the Washington Commanders’ team facility Thursday, Coach Ron Rivera started another team meeting by addressing another controversy. The night before, in a statement criticizing D.C.’s attorney general, the team referenced the August shooting of running back Brian Robinson Jr. Later, after Robinson’s agent condemned the team for using his client as a pawn in its legal battle, the Commanders issued another statement, saying the topics should have been kept “separate and apart.”

In the locker room, Robinson said he tried not to pay attention to the statement, but it made it harder to move on from the shooting.

“It's difficult, but personally, I got to be stronger than what I'm up against,” he said, adding, “I wish it would die down.”

When asked whether it bothered them to see the organization use Robinson’s tragedy, most Commanders echoed Rivera’s message that they need to control what they can control and focus on the Philadelphia Eagles, their next opponent. But left tackle Charles Leno Jr. did not.

“Everybody wants to be [politically correct], but of course it's upsetting,” he said. “[Robinson] never should've been part of that situation. … His feelings and what he's gone through should be a completely separate deal.”

Everyone with the team who spoke to the media, including Leno and Rivera, insisted the situation wouldn’t compromise their preparation for Monday night’s game. Washington probably needs that to be true because playing at undefeated Philadelphia, a complete squad led by quarterback and MVP candidate Jalen Hurts, will be one of the team’s toughest tests this season. The challenge was underscored at the beginning of team drills Thursday, when the speakers played loud crowd noise.

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But a few players acknowledged the unending scandals wear on them. In a recent interview with Le Journal de Québec, a French-language daily newspaper in Quebec City, cornerback Benjamin St-Juste said there has been “a dark cloud” over Washington since he arrived in 2021 and that it would be great to have “a fresh start.”

On Thursday, St-Juste’s comments were shared widely on social media, seemingly as a response to the Robinson situation. But St-Juste clarified that he did the interview last week. He elaborated, saying the unending distractions frustrate him because they swoop in as a “mood-killer” whenever the team gains positive momentum. The toughest part, he said, was that he feels unable to provide insight into the business and ownership parts of the franchise.

“I don't have the answers, but I'm talking about it,” he said. “Can we talk about how we balling on defense?”

“Every week, it seems like something pops up,” quarterback Taylor Heinicke said. “But us players, I think we do a good job of kind of just muting that out.”

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When Leno said the team can’t be distracted by this situation, he paused.

“How many times have I said it?” he asked. “It’s always stuff around here. But you got to keep the main thing the main thing — and we just want to focus on playing football. It’s very tough to do that. But it’s our job.”

Over two seasons in Washington, Leno said he has learned a lesson: “You got to be really callous here.”

Star wideout Terry McLaurin said when problems arise, he tells younger teammates to try not to pay attention to them. He said part of being a professional is having the ability to deal with on- and off-field challenges, and that’s “part of the job, unfortunately, whether it has something to do with you or not.” He said he didn’t want to comment about the team using Robinson’s name in its statement until he discussed it with Robinson himself.

“But at the end of the day, he's one of us, so … we're going to have his back,” McLaurin added.

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During his news conference, Rivera said he saw the team using Robinson’s name in its statement as interesting, not important. He said his players should “focus in on what we do, what’s important for what we do.”

“The players seem to be in a good place,” Rivera added. “I have an open-door policy. If they want to come speak to me about it, I told them to come talk to me. And to date, nobody has talked to me. I talked to Brian last night, talked to him again today. Brian’s in a great spot. Brian didn’t understand what the big fuss was.”

Rivera said he was not involved in drafting either statement; on Wednesday night, he was flying back to Virginia after a trip to California for the burial of his mother, Dolores Rivera-Munoz, who died last week.

In the challenges of navigating this season, Rivera has often spoken of his mother’s influence, and it seemed particularly relevant Thursday.

“It’s funny because a lot of things my mom was going through, she didn’t want me to know about, and I was the last one to know,” he said. “That’s kind of the way Mom was. Growing up in the military, being an Army officer’s wife, there were a lot of things, a lot of responsibilities you had, and she understood that. One of them was protecting the troops.”