- The Washington Times
Monday, November 21, 2022

HOUSTON — Taylor Heinicke has a tradition of buying a new pair of Air Jordans after every victory in the color scheme of that game’s opponent. The bit started as a personal treat and has since extended to buying pairs for other position groups. Last week, the quarterback shelled out for the offensive line. This week, after Sunday’s 23-10 win over the Houston Texans, the tight ends will get new pairs. 

The act has increasingly drawn attention. And so on the other day, coach Ron Rivera got in on the fun: He showed up to the facility with a pair of white-and-green Jordans to celebrate beating the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles.

“The best part was I put on a Taylor Heinicke t-shirt too,” Rivera said Monday, holding up the shoes on a video call with reporters. 

The vibes are good right now around the Commanders. That’s what happens when a team wins five of the last six. 

Rivera was in a particularly cheery mood a day after his team notched another victory to continue its surge. The coach said he’s noticed the impact of his team’s recent stretch — from the seats at NRG Stadium in Houston being filled with thousands of Commanders faithful to fans congratulating him at a gas station Monday while he filled his tank.

“I feel a little of the momentum that we’re building,” Rivera said. 

Everything suddenly seems to be breaking the Commanders’ way, too. As Washington looks to climb the standings in a competitive NFC, their upcoming foes have been hit with unfortunate injuries that could make a difference in the playoff hunt. 

For instance, The Atlanta Falcons, next weekend’s opponent, placed star tight end Kyle Pitts on injured reserve after he tore his MCL in Sunday’s win over the Chicago Bears.  The New York Giants — who the Commanders face twice after Atlanta — also lost top cornerback Adoree’ Jackson (sprained MCL) for four to six weeks and wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson (ACL) for the season in Sunday’s loss to the Detroit Lions. 

And the Commanders have gotten positive injury news of their own. Rivera announced that defensive end Chase Young was activated to the team’s roster Monday and the pass-rusher could make his season debut against the Falcons. Rivera said it was too soon to tell whether Young, coming off a torn ACL, would play, but his return figures to be a further boost for a defensive line that has been dominant this year. 

The Commanders are 6-5 now. But 9-5 or 8-6 doesn’t seem out of the question.

That said, one of the reasons that Rivera and Co. feel they’ve been successful over this stretch is because they’ve been able to focus on the task at hand. When Rivera recently named Heinicke the starter over Carson Wentz, he made no guarantee the decision would be for the rest of the season — instead saying the team would take it game-by-game.

Though players and coaches have enjoyed winning, they have also stressed the importance of cleaning up mistakes. After Rivera’s post-game speech to players, he had defensive tackle Jonathan Allen address the group. The defensive captain, in a moment captured on video by the team’s in-house production crew, told teammates that he didn’t want to “dampen the mood” but he focused on the areas that the Commanders needed to fix for the future. 

The defense, Allen said, can’t afford to be “sloppy” as they were in the second half, when Houston scored 10 points after being held to just five net yards at halftime. And then he focused on the other side of the ball. “Offense, I know you can be better than that in the red zone,” Allen said of the unit that scored only one touchdown in four trips.

“I’m not calling anybody out,” Allen said, “I’m calling everybody out. … A good win, but let’s refocus. Let’s not have to have a loss to get ourselves refocused.” 

Rivera said Monday that as wins have started to pile up, he’s observed how players aren’t letting the wins overshadow the details of what they have to correct. Rivera has seen that emphasized in speeches from team leaders like Allen and star wide receiver Terry McLaurin, who emphasized to the group after Philadelphia that it was on them to set the tone. 

“We don’t have to take (crap) from nobody,” McLaurin said after beating the Eagles

But over this stretch, players seem happier. Even the normally stoic Allen cracked a smile in his post-game press conference and admitted he was having fun. 

“Football is a very tough game because it’s very stressful,” Allen said. “People see it on Sundays, but they really don’t see what goes into it Monday through Saturday. If the average fan really saw what football was like, I think a lot would be turned off because it’s a nasty game. It’s physical. 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’ve got to enjoy one another.” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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