At Washington’s first practice in pads, Ron Rivera’s direction for the team is clear – The Washington Post
“Be smart,” he told the players after gathering them along the side of the practice field. “Understand the importance of getting ready to play football.” Then he recounted the highlights and the mistakes, made often by younger players who perhaps need more time with their playbooks. He stressed the importance of paying attention to detail, the need to play with the technique their coaches taught them and the value of playing fast.
“They’ve been away from football for a long time and we didn’t have [organized team activities] and minicamp, so we figured there are going to be a lot of bad habits that we have to get corrected,” Rivera said. “And it’s not necessarily residual from last year; it’s just guys tend to fall back into what’s easiest to do right now, and we’ve got to make sure that the guys are understanding that this is how we do things.”
Because of the pandemic, teams will get only 14 practices in pads (and no preseason games) before the regular season begins, meaning Rivera and his assistants will have limited opportunity to evaluate a roster with many players they met in person only recently. That includes at quarterback, with Alex Smith now competing with Dwayne Haskins for reps as Smith continues his recovery from his serious leg injury.
But if Washington’s first practice in pads revealed anything about how Rivera operates, it’s that he is insistent on high intensity, he expects accountability and he is more than happy to experiment to find what works. In short, it is wholly unlike Washington’s training camp practices of the past few years.
“[He’s] a person that’s going to ask a lot of us players and is going to want a lot,” safety Landon Collins said. “He’s expecting us to be the best players that we can be, and he’s pushing us to the limit.”
Washington has changed its systems on both sides of the ball — to a 4-3 scheme on defense and to a version of the Air Coryell on offense — and although the coaching staff was able to maintain some semblance of a teaching forum in the offseason with video conference calls, the on-field work is only beginning.
To find the initial 53-man roster, players will rotate — first-teamers with second-teamers, twos with threes, etc. — to find the best combinations of players on the field. On Tuesday, for example, Haskins worked primarily with the starters on the offensive line, but his pass catchers weren’t always first-team players.
“Very few positions are set in our mind right now,” Rivera said. “We’re still trying to find the right combination, so tomorrow you might see a different group of players on the left side of our offensive line. You might see a different combination of safeties in the secondary. You’re definitely going to see a different combination of linebackers, that’s for sure. We’re going to try to experiment. We got a little bit of time, so we can go through a few more practices to try to figure out who exactly is our best combination of players on the field at a time.”
Rivera’s staff sought competition to determine many starting jobs, but one competition that hasn’t gone as expected so far is quarterback. Haskins entered camp as the presumed starter and appeared to have a firm hold on the job Tuesday. His status could always change as camp progresses, but if a competition still exists, Haskins’s top challenger appears to be Smith and not Kyle Allen, as Rivera had planned earlier in the offseason after trading for the third-year passer.
Tuesday was the first time Smith practiced in pads since suffering his injury in November 2018. The 36-year-old participated in seven-on-seven drills (without a pass rush) and early individual work as Rivera closely watched his footwork and progressions.
“We’re very comfortable with his movement skills right now,” Rivera said. “We’re trying to slowly introduce him back into football in terms of being back out there with other players. For the last few months, all he’s really done is been working out there on his own, throwing to trainers and to staff. So now he’s integrated where he’s now working with other groups of players. … We did seven-on-seven with him. It was good. It was good to see him sharp. You see him go through his progressions and we’ll expand on his role as we see fit.”
Without providing specifics, Rivera said Haskins “did some really good things” and stressed the importance of decision-making from all the quarterbacks, more so than accuracy at this point. Haskins’s comfort with his receivers and a larger role as the presumptive starter was evident. But the true test of his improvement and grasp on the starting job will be his decision-making throughout camp.
For the team as a whole, Rivera’s evaluation will come down to details.
“That was basically my message,” he said. “Making sure, ‘Hey, you guys, know your assignments and know your job and then go out there and do it, because everybody is depending on you.’ This is the ultimate team game, and we can’t have one guy not doing his job.”