The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Commanders’ turnaround has echoes of Ron Rivera’s past

Commanders Coach Ron Rivera stands on the sideline during the team's defeat of the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at FedEx Field. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
6 min

Ron Rivera has seen this movie before. He knows the beginning, the ending and all the bumps throughout. The first time was in 2013, when he was coach of the Carolina Panthers and turned a losing team into a winning club three years into his tenure.

Now, during his third year with Washington, he’s seeing the same acts unfold, only with a somewhat different cast.

Over the past few years, Rivera has harked back to his days with Carolina, signed players he coached in Carolina and built a staff primarily with coaches he worked with in Carolina. Rivera found a formula with the Panthers that he has tried to replicate — to the extent that Washington has jokingly been called the “Commanthers” — and he’s seeing similar results.

After a 1-4 start, the Commanders have transformed into a playoff contender with a 7-5 record. The 2013 Panthers started 1-3 and finished 12-4.

How? Rivera points to the same things that helped his previous club grow into a winning team: a stout defense, a running back tandem, reliable play in the trenches and familiarity.

“It’s probably just a residual of some of these guys being here a couple years, going through OTAs, minicamp, training camp and just … working with each other, playing with each other,” Rivera said Monday. “Just kind of the lightbulb going [on].”

Players have provided similar explanations; they know the systems better and are more comfortable with their teammates. Yet the Commanders’ in-season transformation is so dramatic, it has put them in rare company.

They are the fifth team since 2010 to notch at least seven wins in their first 12 games after beginning 1-4, joining the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers, 2016 Miami Dolphins, 2015 Kansas City Chiefs and 2011 Denver Broncos.

What’s more: The NFC East, a division that only two years ago was a laughingstock, is now the NFL’s finest. All four teams are in playoff position — Philadelphia is 10-1, Dallas is 8-3, and the New York Giants are 7-4 — and it is only the second division since the 2002 realignment to have all four of its teams with at least seven wins through Week 12. (The other: the AFC North in 2014.)

The NFC East is doing its best to recapture its glorious past

Washington has come a long way since the debacle of Week 5, when it dropped to 1-4 and Rivera was the subject of criticism for comments insinuating that the rest of the division was thriving because of its quarterbacks. But he wasn’t wrong.

His point, though perhaps poorly explained, was that the other teams had quarterbacks who were more familiar with their systems and teammates. Washington was only five games in with Carson Wentz, and when it switched to Taylor Heinicke in Week 7, it got a quarterback with plenty of experience in offensive coordinator Scott Turner’s system.

That familiarity matters. Just ask Terry McLaurin.

“I know we’ve had some quarterback changes over the years, but having a guy that you have worked with, that the receiver group has worked with, that makes for a smooth transition,” the star wideout said in October, when Heinicke took over.

Heinicke has galvanized a team that was in the doldrums. Rivera has described his play as “scrappy,” and teammates have at times struggled to explain the effect he has on them.

His biggest asset may be his mobility. Much of Washington’s success over the past seven weeks has come from its ability to extend plays and drives. Heinicke has faced more pressure than Wentz did, but he can more easily escape the pocket, pick up yardage with his feet and scramble to buy time.

Taylor Heinicke’s mobility keeps the Commanders moving forward

Although Heinicke lacks Wentz’s arm strength, Washington has refocused its offense on the running game, a luxury it didn’t have in the early going because of Brian Robinson Jr.’s absence. The team placed the rookie on injured reserve after he was shot twice during an armed robbery attempt in August. He was activated in Week 5, and Sunday’s win was his first 100-yard rushing game.

“We kind of showed our hand during the preseason of what we wanted to do and how we wanted to be on offense,” Rivera said. “Using that two-back tandem, I really do think that being able to commit to the run the way we have has really helped us.”

In the first five weeks, Washington averaged 42.1 passes (the third most in the NFL) and the running game accounted for only 26.1 percent of its yards. Over the past seven weeks, Washington has thrown the ball only 27.6 times per game (26th most in the NFL in that span) and the running game has accounted for 46 percent of its yardage.

The Commanders also have reduced their negative play rate from 36.5 percent over the first five games to 28.1 percent in the seven games since. Doing so has eliminated many third and longs; their average of seven third-down attempts of seven or more yards through Week 5 has whittled to 4.9 in the weeks since.

On defense, the line has worked in tandem with the coverage unit to create havoc. And the most notable change has come in the form of turnovers. Washington mustered one — Darrick Forrest’s interception to seal a season-opening win over the Jacksonville Jaguars — in the first five weeks. Since Week 6, it has 13.

But as the Commanders have turned the corner, their games have remained close; four of their past six wins have been decided by one score or less.

“This is mirroring what we went through in Carolina,” Rivera said Sunday after a 19-13 win over the Falcons. “... In Year 3, it came together, and that’s kind of what you hope for, that you get to a certain point [and] everything comes together, and it [has] started to come together. The guys are playing the way that we believe that they are capable, that we’re trying to get across that this is what they can do, this is what they can be.”