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Commanders fire DL coach Sam Mills: Why it happened, and what comes next

ASHBURN, Va. — Washington Commanders head coach Ron Rivera announced the firing of defensive line coach Sam Mills III on Tuesday, a move made more surprising by the timing than the action itself.

Rivera opened his post-practice media availability with the news. Mills, Washington’s DL coach since 2020 and a member of Rivera’s staff since 2011 in Carolina, was relieved of his duties two weeks into training camp and five days before the Commanders’ preseason opener.

“Just a difference in philosophy for the most part,” Rivera said about the decision. “I felt like it was a change I needed to make.”

Rivera on Tuesday cited concerns stemming from this year’s offseason and training camp, rather than the defense’s underwhelming 2021 season. He informed assistant defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina before Tuesday’s practice that he would replace Mills.

The bombshell announcement woke up an otherwise quiet camp for the Commanders. Most days focused on standard fare storylines involving injuries and integrating new players like quarterback Carson Wentz and rookie wide receiver Jahan Dotson. Now, attention shifts to a significant change.

“At the end of the day, it’s sad,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said. “I think me and Coach Sam were getting along really well. We were really making some progress as a defensive unit. It’s the NFL. People just got to remember it’s a great game but a terrible business.”

Rivera did not elaborate on those philosophical differences, though it’s curious what could have changed so dramatically to warrant the dismissal of a longtime assistant deep into training camp. The possibility of dismissing Mills had been rumored quietly for months, if not longer, despite his long-standing relationship with Rivera.

Rivera acknowledged back in 2020, his first season in Washington, that some friction existed between the defensive linemen and the new staff. Players resisted the teaching of specific techniques but collectively rallied together to help lead a top-five defense to a surprising NFC East division title.

Washington’s defense received considerable hype accordingly, with the starting four linemen — all recent first-round selections, including Jonathan Allen and 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young — in the role of headliners.

But the group collectively underwhelmed last season. Young, among others, failed to build upon the 2020 success. Washington’s play rarely met the hype, as the defense cratered to 28th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rating. Whispers about Mills’s future swirled following the season, but Rivera kept his staff intact.

Rivera addressed the linemen directly before practice about the change, the first he’d ever made during training camp in 12 seasons as an NFL head coach.

“You’ve got to learn to expect the unexpected, and as soon as you get comfortable, the NFL will surprise you,” Allen said. “I think the timing was very surprising, but at the end of the day, it’s not my job to worry about that.”

Mills’ coaching career began in Carolina, spanning 15 years, including with Rivera from 2011 to 2019. He was hired as part of Rivera’s initial staff in Washington during the 2020 offseason.

“Very difficult,” Rivera said of the decision. “I’ve known Sam a long time, and he’s a very good football coach. I appreciate everything he’s done. He helped us win a division our first year, and things got tough last year. There were some things that I wanted to change.”

The decision came only days after Mills attended the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio. His late father, former NFL linebacker Sam Mills Jr., was inducted as a member of the 2022 class.

The day-to-day change for the linemen won’t be dramatic. Zgonina, whose playing career ended in 2009 after 17 seasons with seven teams, often directs positional drills. He joined Washington in 2020 following two seasons as the 49ers’ DL coach.

Zgonina downplayed the promotion, stating it won’t change his approach in trying to help this team win games and aid player development.

“I like where we’re at in the room,” Zgonina said. “We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer and closer every day.”

Assistant defensive backs/nickel coach Brent Vieselmeyer, another member of the staff since 2020, will help with the defensive ends.

One of Zgonina’s friends, Hall of Fame defensive lineman Warren Sapp, attended Tuesday’s practice. Sapp previously spent a couple of days with Washington during its June minicamp, and Rivera said the timing of this visit was coincidental.

Recently retired edge rusher Ryan Kerrigan will continue shadowing the coaching staff through training camp and help the DL in an unofficial capacity.

(Photo: John McDonnell / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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