ASHBURN, Va. -- Ron Rivera has spent late summers reporting to training camp for the better part of his 61 years of life. As a young player trying to prove himself, as a Super Bowl champion trying to get his team back on top and as a grizzled veteran trying to hang on. As a broadcaster -- for just a short while. As a young assistant trying to climb the ranks, as a coordinator directing the defense and then as a head coach running the show.
You'll have to forgive him if it feels brand new this year, though. The Commanders are under new ownership after Josh Harris and his group for a record $6.05 billion, and Rivera is looking forward to it.
"I said every time I came in and had to answer your questions that weren't football related, 'What would it be like just talking football?'" Rivera said with a laugh and a smile Tuesday, one day before the Commanders opened training camp. "That's what is exciting about it for me personally. The last few years, I honestly felt more like a manager."
Rivera explained his plans for all the time he'll have now that he won't have to deal with the non-football stuff. Expect him partaking in more meetings with defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and checking in with new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.
His quarterback has noticed the change.
"You can just kind of see a weight off his shoulders," Sam Howell said Wednesday. "He can just come out here and coach ball, and that's what he loves to do. You can see it. He's brought energy even with whatever else he had to deal with, he was still always energetic and was still giving feedback to both sides of the ball, but I think he will be more involved this year for sure."
And after fielding and answering plenty of ownership questions -- now with excitement and hope, rather than frustration and uncertainty -- Rivera did get to talk about football. He spoke about the opportunities ahead for young, promising but unproven offensive linemen, about the intriguing group of offensive skill-position players and about a secondary that adds two new faces to a solid veteran core.
Just because there's a new era of good feelings surrounding the Commanders doesn't mean there's any less pressure, though. In fact, if anything, Rivera feels more pressure to deliver in his fourth year with the team and first under the new boss. He's 22-27-1 through three years with zero playoff wins.
"I think we've been too close," Rivera said Tuesday. "For everything that we have done and what we have and how we have competed these last couple years, we have been too close the last couple of years. We've gotten into a really good run, and it's time to continue to sustain it and prove that these are the guys, these are the coaches, that I'm the right guy to help this organization moving forward."
Harris and Mitchell Rales, another member of the new ownership group, were on hand to watch the opening practice, and Harris was scheduled to speak with the team Wednesday afternoon.
"It was very cool," Rivera said Wednesday. "It'll be an opportunity for them to hear from him specifically, what his vision and what the standard will be and what the expectations are. That's one of the things I've really appreciated in my conversations with Mr. Harris and his partnership."
For all the newness, Rivera's football discussion naturally arrived at the old problem he and the franchise haven't solved: quarterback. Howell is in line to be Washington's seventh consecutive different Week 1 starter. He'll likely determine if the Commanders are once again close, or if they arrive, or if they're as far away as they've ever been.
"That's about as big a question as it gets," Rivera said Tuesday. "Has Sam grown and developed enough to help us take the next step? Is Jacoby [Brissett] ready to go and compete, and if he gets that chance, will he take us up to the next level? It's a big, broad question, but it does start with that position, which is the biggest thing."
Rivera would love for Howell to prove he's the man from the get-go. Last year's situation -- Carson Wentz for the first six weeks (2-4 record before a broken thumb), then Taylor Heinicke (5-2-1 before the offense sputtered), then a return to Wentz (three interceptions in a loss to the Browns) before a Week 18 spot start for Howell -- won't do. From Weeks 1-17, the Commanders were 25th in sack rate, 26th in interception rate, 28th in expected points added per dropback and 30th in off-target rate.
Howell showed some nice things in Week 18. He threw for a touchdown to Terry McLaurin on his first career pass and ran for a score later. He hit on a deep ball to McLaurin that traveled 52 yards in the air, the most on a completion by a Washington player since Robert Griffin III in 2012. Howell also made mistakes one would expect in a debut, chief among them a red zone interception into double coverage. Now in a new system with a new coordinator, Howell is confident in the work he's put in this offseason.
"At this point I have total command of the offense," Howell said Wednesday. "I think I made a lot of strides, I studied a lot this summer trying to get really comfortable with the system.
"I focus on myself and try to be the best player I can be, whether I'm the third-string or the starter, I'm still going to go about my business the same way, try to do everything I can to become that best player I can at that time and put my best foot forward and try to give our the chance to win."
Rivera will be looking for "consistent play and growth" from his young quarterback, and Howell echoed that, hoping to put "consistent ball on tape." Given the projected defensive strength and a capable supporting cast around Howell, even passable quarterback play would be a major victory. After all, even with the struggles at the position last year, the Commanders were in the playoff race until Wentz's Week 17 disaster.
Getting even adequate quarterback play, though, has been a chore for Washington ever since Kirk Cousins left in 2017, and Howell will have to buck even bigger trends than his team's recent history. The last quarterback drafted in the fifth round or later to win double-digit games in either of his first two seasons is Tom Brady in 2001. It's rare for Howell to even be starting, much less leading a successful team. The outside expectations, therefore, are low. Howell even mentioned his friends joked about his "Madden" rating (66 overall, tied for 47th among quarterbacks).
"I know that some people might think it's crazy just with how the draft went and I hardly played at all last year, but it doesn't really change anything for me," Howell said. "I know the type of player I can be in this league, and I feel like I've worked very hard and put myself in a position to go out there and succeed."
And about that Madden rating? "It is what it is. Hopefully it'll be different at the end of this year."
Draft status and video game ratings matter not if the the on-field product can refute them. The Commanders reportedly had a second- or third-round grade on Howell in 2021, and Rivera has repeatedly backed Howell as well as Brissett.
"I think we feel very comfortable with those guys," Rivera said Tuesday. "We like who they are. We like their development [and] growth, and we'll be watching that one obviously very closely."
On the first day of training camp, hope springs eternal across the NFL. Players are healthy and fresh, and the other challenges that naturally arise throughout the coming months are yet to arrive. Everyone is undefeated. The challenge for Rivera and Howell will be small improvements in the midst of a grand, overarching new era for the franchise.
"We need to take a step every day," Rivera said Tuesday. "Every day we've got to learn and grow from what we do. I'm excited about it because of the fact that we saw so much growth during OTAs and minicamp and we expect it to continue. ... It's an exciting time for us but, again, every day we want to see some positive growth."