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As the Commanders surge, Ron Rivera gives thanks with a holiday break

Commanders head coach Ron Rivera has been feeling the good vibes brought on by his team's recent run. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Washington Commanders Coach Ron Rivera tweaked the team’s regular practice schedule to give his squad Thanksgiving off. Usually, the players rest Tuesday and work Wednesday through “Fast Friday,” but this week, Rivera held a walk-through Tuesday, practiced Wednesday and Friday and slid the rest day to the holiday.

The shuffling had “a lot” to do with the team’s schedule, its recent success and Rivera’s growing confidence in his unit, he said, though he was quick to point out: “Let’s don’t forget, we did work on Tuesday, okay? Just make sure everybody knows: Everything that we need to have for this week, we’ve gotten done.”

Washington (6-5) hosts the Atlanta Falcons (5-6) on Sunday in a game that could impact the fringes of the NFC playoff picture. The Commanders and Falcons rank eighth and ninth, respectively, in the NFC and are within reach of the postseason spots held by Seattle (6-4) and the New York Giants (7-4). But considering his team’s performance over the past six weeks — 5-1, with two tense, nationally televised wins — Rivera broached the idea of adjusting the schedule, and key players and coaches endorsed it.

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“This is a group of guys that are working hard, doing things the right way and coming off of a stretch where you play a Monday night [at Philadelphia] and then travel two-thirds across the country [to Houston],” he said. “A little something like [the day off for Thanksgiving], they deserved it, and they earned it. … I’ve done it previously as a job-well-done type of thing for the guys, and they really responded very well. That’s what I’m anticipating here.”

Several players said this was the first time they could remember having Thanksgiving off since they were teenagers. In high school, many were involved in regional or state playoff pushes, and in college, most were gearing up for big rivalry matchups. Right guard Trai Turner, who played for Rivera in Carolina from 2014 to 2019, said Rivera usually treated the holiday like most of the NFL, which holds earlier or shorter practices to get players home in time for dinner with family.

But this year, considering the circumstances, Rivera took it a step further.

“When you’re doing good things, good things happen to you,” right tackle Sam Cosmi quipped.

In the past six weeks, as the Commanders have revitalized their season, the mood in the locker room has become noticeably lighter. Players seem more confident, laughing more or smiling easier. On Monday, Rivera held one of the most upbeat news conferences of his tenure, expressing excitement about the team coming together and playing well but also about its leadership. After the past two wins, wide receiver Terry McLaurin and defensive tackle Jonathan Allen gave a speech parroting Rivera’s message: We are playing well; we need to play better.

“I’m excited about our potential,” Rivera said Monday. “When your guys respond the way that you hope that they would and come out and play the way they did and then sit there and say, ‘We could have been better,’ that means a lot. It means that these young men are coming together. They are believing in each other.”

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The good vibes can be seen even in small ways. The tight ends thanked quarterback Taylor Heinicke on social media for making them the latest recipients in his spree of buying Air Jordan sneakers. Quarterback Carson Wentz hosted a large group of his teammates for Thanksgiving dinner. Earlier this week, the Commanders posted a sign on the players’ walk to practice: Which Thanksgiving dish has got to go?

“Stuffing,” defensive end Chase Young said in a video posted to the team website. Allen initially considered turkey but settled on candied yams. Many players said cranberry sauce or green bean casserole, and defensive end Casey Toohill claimed that turkey, while “terrible,” benefits from the “propaganda” of Thanksgiving.

“I don’t have that problem,” defensive end Shaka Toney said. “My mama’s a good cook.”

Despite Rivera’s shuffling, some players and coaches still dropped by the facility. Rookie tight end Cole Turner said he came in partly to lift and partly because it’s where he gets breakfast every morning.

“I’m not really a big cooker,” he said.

Offensive coordinator Scott Turner said he came through early but by the afternoon he was at home, grilling a bird. He spent the day with his family, including his father, Norv, the former Washington coach. Scott said they paused the Buffalo Bills-Detroit Lions game before the last drive to eat at the table, but the result — Buffalo winning, 28-25, on a last-second field goal — was spoiled by a push alert to his phone.

“You don't really get days like that during the season,” Turner said. “[It was really good to be] able to spend time with my family … and enjoy the holiday like a regular person.”

Turner, the tight end from Clackamas, Ore., a suburb of Portland, didn’t have family in town, so he had dinner at position coach Juan Castillo’s house. Turner ate ham, mac and cheese and sweet potatoes and arrived at the facility the next morning feeling energized.

“[The day off Thursday] makes the week feel a lot longer, kind of breaks it up,” he said. “It’s kind of nice because you feel a little bit more fresh.”

On Friday morning, Rivera said, he arrived early and found some players working out or receiving their usual medical treatment. He liked what he saw on the practice field later and took it as a sign of commitment and maturity — that he could trust his guys to do what they needed to do to take care of themselves.

“I thought today’s practice was good,” Rivera said Friday. “They were up-tempo; it was very efficient. They picked up pretty much where they had left off on Wednesday’s practice. So I feel pretty confident about these guys and their preparation.”