Column: Washington Football Team, Rivera finally get to play football after long offseason of change

Read a preview of the Baltimore Ravens season opener

Ron Rivera took over as head coach of the Washington Football Team in January, just nine months ago. With everything that he’s had to endure and has transpired since then, it feels like nine years ago.

On Sunday, he will finally get to coach a football game.

“Finally. I promise you that will be my first thought when that ball gets kicked,” Rivera said this week. “Finally, we’re playing football.”

“I hope it continues. I really do. To me, when that happens that’s going to signal some normalcy in our lives and in my life, for sure.”

Everything up to this point has been far from normal. Now, it’s Rivera’s chance to see what the team he has assembled looks like on the field.

There are a number of question marks surrounding this team, and that’s mostly because there is a new head coach, new coordinators, young quarterback and young roster.

The coronavirus pandemic has affected everyone, but with a team that has a lot of new pieces, it has even more of an impact.

Normally, they would have had a full offseason to work together and develop chemistry. Instead, they had to wait until late July to get together in person.

The most important question of Washington’s season: Is Dwayne Haskins a franchise quarterback?

Haskins is way ahead of where he was last year at this time. He was challenged by his new head coach in January, and Rivera is pleased with how he has responded.

From his on-the-field progression and decision-making to his off-the-field leadership. Losing the offseason field work slowed it down a bit, but the second-year quarterback sees a huge difference in himself compared to last year.

“Just my demeanor overall,” Haskins said. “Just me having more confidence in myself to go do what I need to do to be the leader of this football team and this offense, and having a coach that believes in me is something that’s propelled me to have even more confidence out there on this field.”

“Just trying to find ways to make plays and win games, and I feel like we’re doing a great job figuring out ways to make those things happen.”

The even bigger quarterback story of the year is the return of Alex Smith.

It’s truly remarkable that he has been able to come back from the gruesome broken leg he sustained 22 months ago.

He has progressed to the point where he was on the field for camp and taking reps. It’s not yet known if he will be the backup on Sundays or if it will be Kyle Allen.

Regardless, Smith is the Comeback Player of the Year in the NFL.

Don’t be surprised if you see Smith take a snap this year. He didn’t work this hard to get back for nothing.

Terry McLaurin will be a big key to this offense that lacks experience. The second-year wide receiver has already become Haskins’ favorite target and someone who the quarterback trusts. Last year, he scored seven touchdowns on 58 receptions. That’s pretty good.

After that, there isn’t much experience, especially in the backfield, after the release of Adrian Peterson.

“The running back spot is going to be by committee,” Rivera said.

The team is high on newcomer J.D. McKissic, who has emerged in training camp.

They signed Peyton Barber and drafted Antonio Gibson out of Memphis, who had only 33 carries his entire college career. He can do a lot more than just run the ball, however, and will be used as a dual threat.

They also have Bryce Love, who missed all of last year recovering from a knee injury.

On the other side of the ball, one of the biggest questions will be: How much of the real deal is Chase Young?

From what he has displayed in the short time he has been on the field, it’s clear that he is the real deal. He is a monster and should have a huge season. He was drafted second overall for a reason. He will add depth to a defense that might have to carry this team for a good part of this season.

Jack Del Rio is now in charge of the defense and has switched to a 4-3.

If the defense can live up to its hype, then it should be in good shape. It didn’t do that last year, finishing toward the bottom of most categories.

Jonathan Allen anchors a defense that includes Daron Payne, Matt Ioannidis, Montez Sweat, Chase Young and Ryan Kerrigan up front. That lineup should put a lot of pressure on quarterbacks.

They brought in Thomas Davis Sr., a 16-year veteran, to help at linebacker. Jon Bostic is back for his second year in D.C., along with Shaun Dion Hamilton, who is in his third year out of Alabama.

In the secondary, Kendall Fuller returns after winning a Super Bowl, and “The Peoples Corner” Jimmy Moreland is poised to have a big second year. Troy Apke had a huge training camp and has emerged a starter alongside Landon Collins at the safety position.

There is a lot of talent on the defensive side of the football.

It seems like every year, there are a lot of questions surrounding this team heading into a season. This year is no different, but they have the right person in charge now in Ron Rivera. He has already made a huge difference off the field these past nine months; and if he can do the same on the field, this team will surprise some people this year.

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