When was the moment the season changed for the Washington Commanders? What moment set in motion this five-out-of-six-win run that puts the Commanders at 6-5 and very much in the NFL playoff hunt?
Was it when their second-round draft choice at running back recovered and took the field after being shot on the streets of D. C.?
Was it when their $28 million quarterback who they traded three draft choices for was injured and could no longer play?
Or was it way back on Aug. 9, when the team looked in disarray when head coach Ron Rivera announced they had fired their defensive line coach halfway through training camp?
All of these are very uniquely Washington Commanders moments that may have contributed to the turnaround on the field, some more than others.
Given the dominant performance of this defensive line, propelling this team to its run of success of late, my money is on the day Rivera announced he was firing his longtime coaching colleague Sam Mills III and replaced him with assistant defensive line coach and 17-year NFL veteran Jeff Zgonina.
It was a moment that appeared to show a team in chaos. After all, who fires their defensive line coach on Aug. 9? That’s the sort of change that is normally made in the offseason, when a team has a chance to recruit and interview candidates.
Rivera didn’t make it look much better when he offered little in the way of reasons for the dismissal other than “a difference in philosophy.” When asked to talk about those differences, Rivera responded, “I’m going to keep that to myself.”
It was a bad look then.
Today it looks like a genius move.
The play of Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne was All-Pro-like Sunday in their 23-10 destruction of the Houston Texans. Last year, the two former Alabama players were throwing punches at each other on the sidelines. Now they are slapping hands in joy.
“We just try to have fun,” Allen told reporters after the win. “Football is a very tough game and very stressful. And people see it on Sundays, but they really don’t see what goes into it Monday through … Saturday. And if the average fan really saw what football was like, I think a lot would be turned off. It’s a nasty game. And it’s physical, and it’s tough, and it’s emotionally draining. So when you have success, because it’s very hard to make plays in the NFL, you got to enjoy one another.”
Everyone had sort of expected this kind of joy with this defensive line all along, with four first-round picks in the group, including Chase Young, sidelined for the past year with a knee injury and who may return from his recovery from knee surgery to play this Sunday for the game against Atlanta.
But they had failed to meet expectations since the first building block, Allen, was drafted in 2017 (by the previous administration, I might point out). Rivera inherited three of those first-rounders — Allen, Payne and Montez Sweat. Last year, this defense finished 25th in the league.
Now? They surely strike fear in the hearts of offensive linemen who will have to face them. Those Falcons linemen are probably having nightmares this week watching the destruction the Washington defensive line brought down in Houston.
It’s hard not to connect the dots to the departure of Mills. According to sources, his presence was a source of friction within that line, and one of the reasons Matt Ioannidis wanted out of Washington.
If that was clear by the end of last season, why not let Mills go then? I’m going to believe the reason for that is because Rivera had a long relationship with Mills — he had joined Rivera’s coaching staff in Charlotte in 2011 — and it was a decision that he hoped he never had to make. Rivera may have some coaching limitations, but relationships aren’t one of them. He clearly values relationships with his players and coaches and is an emotional man.
I took him to task for the firing and the timing — Mills had just returned from attending his late father’s posthumous induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton — but it had to be hard for Rivera to make that move.
“Very difficult, I’ve known Sam a long time,” Rivera said. “He’s a very good football coach and I really appreciate everything he’s done. He helped us win a division our first year and then things got tough last year. But there are some things I felt I wanted to change.”
It’s hard not to connect that change to the results we have seen on the field now — the fearsome Washington Commanders.
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