It’s July 25 and Ron Rivera’s disposition is as sunny as the sky that will hang over Ashburn, Virginia, for much of training camp. And why wouldn’t it be? Rivera has a new start on life as Commanders head coach after Josh Harrisfrom Dan Snyder just weeks earlier. There’s a , and that’s not the only change at OrthoVirginia Training Center at Commanders Park.
There are (gasp) stands for fans to observe practice from, a basic amenity Snyder never provided. Harris will go on to (gasp) actually attend training camp practices and endure brutal weather in the preseason opener from (gasp) the stands instead of a suite. He’ll (gasp) talk on the nationally broadcast preseason victory over the Ravens that snapped Baltimore’s record 24-game preseason win streak. All this afterthe day the purchase became official. They’re things that shouldn’t be out of the ordinary but were during Snyder’s ownership — and that’s without the long list of scandals and legal issues that plagued the team.
“The last few years, I honestly felt more like a manager,” Rivera says on the eve of training camp. “Trying to manage things and stuff like that. Trying to keep everybody on task and on focus in terms of the game. Obviously, the spring I thought was really good. It really was, because it was about putting the football team together knowing that the inevitable in terms of the ownership change was happening so that we would be ready to go when it did happen. That’s really been the focus as of late for us.”
Now it’s up to Rivera, his staff and his players to make sure the Commanders’ biggest win of the season isn’t from a meeting room in Minneapolis where the sale was finalized.
“I’ve got a lot to prove,” Rivera says. “We’ve put ourselves in a really good position with a good, young football team along with key veteran players and now is the opportunity … So yeah, I do feel that I have stuff to prove.”
In Howell we trust
It’s July 26, and Sam Howell gets it. A 2022 fifth-round pick with one career start — a win over the Cowboys after the Commanders were eliminated from the playoffs — he understands he’s an unlikely match for a team trying to win now.
“I know that some people might think it’s crazy just because of how the draft went and I hardly played at all last year,” Howell says. “It doesn’t really change anything for me. I know the type of player that I can be in this league. I feel like I’ve worked very hard and put myself in a position to go out there and succeed, so I really [couldn’t] care less what other people say. It’s really about what I hear in this building and what I hear internally.”
What he’s heard since is resoundingly positive. Rivera says “we have an opportunity to have a guy that has a chance to be a really good football player for us,” and later even admits. New offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy says “the sky can be the limit for this kid.” Wide receiver Jahan Dotson says Howell has “all the talent in the world.” Terry McLaurin calls Howell “really poised” on multiple occasions — a sentiment echoed by nearly everyone you talk to.
None of them have known Howell as long or know him as well as Dyami Brown. The two connected on 106 passes for 2,133 yards and 20 touchdowns across two seasons at North Carolina. To Brown, two moments stick out among those huge numbers. His favorite is from Howell’s first career start: a touchdown pass on a fade route that spurred a double-digit, fourth-quarter comeback against South Carolina. The second is actually from a loss, when Howell nearly led the Tar Heels back from a 21-0 deficit against Wake Forest.
“Since he got to Chapel Hill,” Brown says. “His facial expression never changed, his composure never changed, he was always level. … I was like, ‘Man, anyone like that, you can trust him because he’s prepared for anything.'”
If Howell is truly prepared for this, though, he’ll be an exception to some significant trends. Only seven quarterbacks since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger have produced double-digit wins in one of their first two seasons after being selected in the fifth round or later (or going undrafted). The last two are the most accomplished quarterback ever and a Hall of Famer.
QBs taken in 5th round or later (or undrafted) to win 10+ games in either of first 2 seasons
In fact, the last time a quarterback drafted in the fifth round or later/undrafted even started double-digit games in one of his first two seasons was 2019, when both Gardner Minshew (Jaguars) and Kyle Allen (Panthers) did it.
That Panthers team, it should be noted, fired Rivera 12 games into the season.
Howell is the franchise’s seventh consecutive different Week 1 quarterback and is Rivera’s ninth different starter overall since the coach arrived in Washington in 2020. Howell didn’t officially “win” the quarterback “battle” over Jacoby Brissett until, though it was never much of a competition. Howell entered training camp as the starter, got virtually all of the first-team reps and performed well in both the preseason and, crucially, in joint practices against the Ravens.
“It is hard,” Rivera says of the quarterback instability. “You know, my first three years, every year it was a conversation. Every year it was a point of discussion. Every year it was, ‘Well, what are we gonna do? How are we gonna do it?’ And then trying to figure out what resources could you use? You know, do we try to trade for this guy? … You spent a lot of time because you wanna get it right, you try to get it right and you know how important it is, especially in this league today.
“We feel very strongly — I know I do — going into this season that we’ve got a guy.”
Bieniemy or bust
It’s Aug. 8 and Rivera has made a mistake. He can be honest to a fault, and this is one of those times. Late in his press conference, Rivera spills the beans that some players have come to himwith Bieniemy’s demanding coaching style.
Bieniemy, the longtime Chiefs coordinator, is demanding. He’s the voice directing players to “finish” runs, to “get up, get set!” in the huddle, to “find work” blocking downfield. He’ll interrupt huddles when something is awry. He’ll compliment as loudly as he critiques when players execute to his standard. Rivera revealing behind-the-scenes consternation raises more than a few eyebrows. Players from both Washington and Kansas City voice their support for Bieniemy. Rivera meets with Bieniemy to smooth things over and admits the following day he “put [his] foot in [his] mouth.”
But not before Bieniemy gets to address things following that Aug. 8 practice.
“Yes, I am intense, and I would be afraid, too, to start, if I didn’t know it,” Bieniemy says. “But on top of that, one thing they do appreciate is this: I’m always going to be upfront, and I’m always going to be honest. Just like I stated when I first got here, we all got to get uncomfortable to get comfortable.”
Later, he transitions to third person.
“Eric Bieniemy is who he is. Eric Bieniemy knows how to adapt and adjust. Eric Bieniemy is a tough, hard-nosed coach, but also understand I’m going to be their biggest and harshest critic, but I’m also their number one fan, because I got their back, and I’m going to support them at all times.”
Bieniemy also represents transition. He’s calling plays for the first time, and he’s doing so for Howell instead of Patrick Mahomes. He’s also Rivera’s first coordinator change in Washington. It might be a little uncomfortable. That’s good. Washington ranks 28th in offensive points per game through Rivera’s first three years. Something had to change.
At least Bieniemy’s title has been official for months. Thanks to the ownership change, the Commanders didn’t formally fill their staff until Tuesday. Juan Castillo, formerly the tight ends coach who also served as the de facto offensive line coach throughout training camp, is now the run game coordinator. Travelle Wharton is the offensive line coach, and Todd Storm takes over tight ends. It may seem like a little thing, but it’s another indication of the transition the team is in: Only five days before the season opener, the staff is finally complete.
The normally loquacious Rivera becomes noticeably taciturn when asked about conversations he’s had with Harris.
“They’ve gone well and they stand in a good situation.”
What about near-future priorities?
“Just continue to go forward with this football team.”
It’s not like these are bad answers or indicative of any problems. It’s just the state of things. There’s a new boss in town, and all Rivera and everyone around him can do is put their best foot forward in a time of major change. Not including Harris’ purchase, there have been six ownership changes since 2011. Five of the six incoming owners had a different coach by their second season running the franchise.
Frankly, the Commanders could look very different this time next year. It’s not just the obvious ones like Rivera and Howell. There’s been no extension for standout safety Kamren Curl. Star defensive ends Chase Young (after having his fifth-year option declined) and Montez Sweat (entering the final year of his rookie year) are among several notable pending free agents after the season. Washington is on track to have the fifth-most cap space next offseason.
The Commanders are 24th in cash spending this season, per Spotrac, and their biggest offseason signing was right tackle Andrew Wylie, a two-time champion with the Chiefs but certainly not the biggest or most expensive (three years, $24 million) name.
The hope, thus, is that a defense returning nine starters and adding first-round pick Emmanuel Forbes can be a major strength, The unit ranked 11th in expected points added in the first nine weeks last year. They ranked second over the final nine weeks, an improvement marked especially by limiting big plays. Jack Del Rio expects more strong play, especially with his group in its second year in the zone match scheme.
The overhauled offense has, but Howell’s progress has inspired confidence. The Commanders don’t need him to be Brady or Warner. They need him to, simply, be functional. Washington finished a half-game out of the playoffs last year despite ranking 27th in expected points added on pass plays from Weeks 1-17 before Howell’s spot start.
That still may be a big ask. McLaurin is only player on the Commanders offense with a Pro Bowl appearance in the last four years. It’s up to Bieniemy to squeeze every last ounce out of this offense. When it comes to Howell in specific, both Rivera and Bieniemy note his ability to self-correct immediately after mistakes. But how many mistakes can the offense afford?
“If I ain’t doing my job, my ass gets fired,” Bieniemy says. “So it’s my job and my responsibility to make sure and I’m getting our guys to do what I expect them to do.”
The time is now
If nothing else, it’s been an encouraging preseason. The Commanders went undefeated — though the results obviously don’t count — and Rivera said the quarterback job was decided by what Howell did rather than what Brissett didn’t do. They gained clarity on several positions and more than held their own in joint practices with the Ravens, sessions Rivera hopes will spur better starts. Washington has started 1-5, 2-6 and 1-4 in his first three seasons. In each season they’ve rallied to give themselves playoff aspirations but no margin for error. The result has been one playoff appearance, zero playoff wins and zero winning seasons.
This year, the Commanders open at home against the Cardinals and then at the Broncos. If they can’t start quickly, they’ll face uphill battles with a difficult schedule and mounting pressure in front of a new owner who didn’t hire many of the coaches or players. On one hand, Rivera has preached patience, especially with Howell. On the other hand, he knows there must be a sense of urgency.
“I think these guys understand what the opportunity is that we have in front of us and what the circumstances are in terms of your head’s above water, your focus now really is just about playing football,” Rivera said Tuesday. “We’re not being asked about other things that are interesting. We’re really going to be asked about what’s important.”
What’s important is results. Wins. Something Rivera hasn’t done enough. Something Howell hasn’t proved he can deliver … yet. Something the organization has failed to do consistently for decades. Now, everyone involved — the players, the coaches, the front office — get a chance to change that.
It’s a new start of sorts — their first chance under new ownership. If things go poorly, though, it could also be their last.
This content was originally published here.