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PALM BEACH, Florida – Since the end of the 2021 season, Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera has pointed to the 2022 season as a key season. This is the third year of his program in Washington, and it was the third year he broke through in Carolina.
Then Commanders switched for quarterback Carson Wentz, and this year it was all about the need to take a bigger step. It’s no longer a question of “Can they?” Now it’s “They have to.” There is another pressure.
“I feel it,” Rivera said of the pressure. “This is the year that says, ‘We’re going up.’ And we should be on our way up.”
Rivera has taken that pressure to heart. Washington won the NFC East in its first season with a record of 7-9. It started 2-6 last season with an underperforming defense heading toward a 7-10 finish.
“What happened my first year was an anomaly,” Rivera said. “I’m not getting too caught up in it. My second year was a bit on level, maybe a step back, because even though I felt we were immature, I was hoping we could get it fixed and we could handle it and go in. the right direction. “
Former Philadelphia Eagles team president Joe Banner said year 3 is crucial to a regime.
“I have said from the day I hired Ron that I thought it was a very good appointment and I think that will prove to be the case in the end,” Banner said. “For me, year 3, if you’re one [general manager] or head coach, that’s when, if you’ve done things right, it’s starting to show up. This is the test. It’s the year that the guys, and especially Ron, have to prove that the foundation they have laid is now starting to show on the pitch and starting to win many more matches. “
Washington has not finished with a winning record since 2016 and has not won a playoff game since the 2005 season. In Carolina, the Panthers went 13-19 overall in their first two seasons before winning 12-4 in the third (2013). The 2013 team featured third-year quarterback Cam Newton, who became the 2015 NFL MVP.
“The third season is when you take another step,” Rivera said out of season. “This area is hungry for a winner. They want a winner and I want to win.”
He will try to do that with Wentz. In Washington, he is seen as an upgrade, not only over Taylor Heinicke – a player they like but are considered a high-end backup – but over the quarterback game of the past four seasons. Some corners of the NFL paint Wentz more as a risk, pointing out that he has been traded twice in a year. Either way, Rivera’s future is now tied to the 2016 No. 2 overall election.
“It gives us a few steps in the right direction,” Rivera said of the acquisition of Wentz.
Not that everyone thinks the pressure has intensified.
“There’s always pressure,” said Washington general manager Martin Mayhew. “We are in this thing to win. Every team is in the situation in terms of pressure. This does not change anything for us.”
The Commanders swapped a third round this year plus a conditional third in 2023 – which turns into another based on playing time – in addition to picking up Wentz’s full salary. They are not going to draft a quarterback with the 11th overall pick. It’s Wentz or bust for Washington.
Wentz is the best quarterback Washington has had since Kirk Cousins left after the 2017 season. Since then, Washington owns the NFL’s worst overall QBR (36.7) and has thrown the least number of touchdown passes (71). Not coincidentally, the commanders set a record of 24-41 in that time.
They had 13-36 in the games that Alex Smith did not start on in this stretch. His leadership and game management helped, and he was an inspiration in 2020, when he came after a thick leg injury that almost everyone thought would end his career. But in his 16 starts, he threw 16 touchdowns and 13 interceptions and owned a Total QBR of 38.1.
Meanwhile, over the past five seasons, Wentz owns the 12th-ranked QBR (60.4) and ranks eighth in total touchdown passes (124).
As they chased Wentz, the coaches praised his ability to throw the ball to all areas of the field. They also like him at an angle and cross, due to his size (6-foot-5) to look over the line and quick ejaculation.
Rivera has spoken to receiver Terry McLaurin, who can win deep or on quick throws, about being ready. Rivera said he has spoken to defensive players who dream of an offensive player who scores more points and gives them more chances to play with a lead. He’s spoken to offensive coordinator Scott Turner, who sees the tape and excitedly tells Rivera, “Look at the throw he made there? Look at his timing on this throw.”
Rivera points to players like running back Antonio Gibson and McLaurin as reasons for greater offensive hope with Wentz around. And he points to a defense that can still rise, thanks to a line featuring Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne.
The commanders must finally make a promise a reality. For now there is renewed hope in the building.
“I’ve seen energy levels rise,” Rivera said. “When I talk to [Wentz’s] new teammates there is a tension in their voice. … You can feel that energy peak. “
Rivera lasted nearly nine full seasons in Carolina because the third season slung the franchise into greater success. Two years after playing 12-4 in his third year, the Panthers went 15-1 and lost in the Super Bowl. Two years after that, they won 11 matches. Washington has not won more than 10 games in a season since 1991.
“How long you’re somewhere is about winning,” Rivera said. “It will never change. If you’m successful, you can have a good, long run. If you’re not, it’s time to move on. That’s the core of this business.”
For Rivera and Washington, this season will give a clear sense of their direction.