PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Since the 2021 season ended, Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera has pointed to the 2022 season as a key one. It's the third year of his program in Washington, and it was the third year when he broke through in Carolina.
Then the Commanders traded for quarterback Carson Wentz, and this year instantly became about the need to take a bigger step. It's no longer an issue of "Can they?" Now, it's "They have to." There's a different pressure.
"I do feel it," Rivera said of the pressure. "This is the year that says, 'We're going to ascend.' And we should be ascending."
Rivera has embraced that pressure. Washington won the NFC East in his first season with a 7-9 record. It started 2-6 last season with an underachieving defense en route to a 7-10 finish.
"What happened my first year was an anomaly," Rivera said. "I don't get too caught up in that. My second year was kind of on par, maybe a step back, because even though I felt we were immature, I was hopeful we could get it straightened up and we could work it and go in the right direction."
Former Philadelphia Eagles team president Joe Banner said Year 3 is the defining one for a regime.
"I've said from the day they hired Ron I thought it was a very good hire and I think that will prove to be the case at the end," Banner said. "For me, Year 3, if you're a [general manager] or head coach, that's when, if you've been doing things right, it will start to show up. This is the test. This is the year those guys, and Ron in particular, have to prove the foundation they've been laying is now starting to show on the field and starting to win a lot more games."
Washington has not finished with a winning record since 2016 and hasn't won a playoff game since the 2005 season. In Carolina, the Panthers went a combined 13-19 in his first two seasons before going 12-4 in the third (2013). That 2013 team featured third-year quarterback Cam Newton, who became the NFL MVP in 2015.
"The third season is when you take another step," Rivera said this offseason. "This area is hungry for a winner. They want a winner and I want to win."
He'll try to do it with Wentz. In Washington, he's viewed as an upgrade, not just over Taylor Heinicke -- a player they like, but view as a high-end backup -- but over the quarterback play of the past four seasons. Some corners of the NFL paint Wentz more as a risk, pointing to the fact that he has been traded twice in a year. Regardless, Rivera's future is now tied to the 2016 No. 2 overall pick.
"It gets us a few steps in the right direction," Rivera said of acquiring Wentz.
Not that everyone believes the pressure has intensified.
"There's always pressure," Washington general manager Martin Mayhew said. "We're in this thing to win. Every team is in the situation as far as pressure. This doesn't change anything for us."
The Commanders traded a third-round pick this year plus a conditional third in 2023 -- that turns into a second based on playing time -- in addition to picking up Wentz's full salary. They're 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 total QBR (36.7) and has thrown the least amount of touchdown passes (71). Not coincidentally, the Commanders have posted a 24-41 record in that time.
They were 13-36 in games Alex Smith didn't start during this stretch. His leadership and game management helped, and he was an inspiration in 2020 coming off a gruesome 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 38.1 Total QBR.
Meanwhile, over the past five seasons, Wentz owns the 12th-ranked QBR (60.4) and ranks eighth in total touchdown passes (124).
When they pursued Wentz, the coaches lauded his ability to throw the ball to all areas of the field. They also like him on slants and crosses, because of his size (6-foot-5) to see over the line and quick release.
Rivera has talked to receiver Terry McLaurin, who can win deep or on quick throws, about being ready. Rivera said he has talked to defensive players who dream of an offense that scores more points and gives them more chances to play with a lead. He has talked to offensive coordinator Scott Turner, who watches the tape and excitedly tells Rivera, "see that throw he made there? Look at his timing on this throw."
Rivera points to players such as running back Antonio Gibson and McLaurin as reasons for greater offensive hope with Wentz around. And he points to a defense that can still ascend, thanks to a line that features Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne.
The Commanders must finally turn promise into reality. For now, there's renewed hope in the building.
"I've seen the energy level rise," Rivera said. "When I talk to [Wentz's] new teammates there's an excitement in their voice. ... You can feel that energy spike."
Rivera lasted nearly nine full seasons in Carolina because that third season catapulted the franchise to greater success. Two years after going 12-4 in his third year, the Panthers went 15-1 and lost in the Super Bowl. Two years after that, they won 11 games. Washington has not won more than 10 games in a season since 1991.
"How long you're at someplace is all about winning," Rivera said. "That will never change. If you're successful you can have a nice, long run. If you're not, it will be time to move on. That's the crux of this business."
For Rivera and Washington, this season will provide a clear sense of their direction.