It's a well-kept secret, but the Washington Football Team's offensive linemen have to give book reports in training camp.
"They all have to read a specific chapter and then do a report on it," said head coach Ron Rivera. "I've been in it when the guys have done reports and it's been real interesting to listen and watch these guys. And it's kind of cool."
One year, it was "Make Your Bed" by Admiral William McRaven; another year, he assigned his players "Chop Wood, Carry Water" by Joshua Medcalf. Regardless of the title, they provide lessons on why things like discipline and attention to detail matter.
That's the kind of thing Rivera has come to expect out of offensive line coach John Matsko, and his influence on his players goes beyond what happens on the field.
"That I think is one of the unique things about Coach Matsko," Rivera said. "It's not just about coaching and demanding and stuff, but it's mentoring and teaching."
A new week of practice begins as the Washington Football Team prepares to take on the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 13. Colors were brought to the field, as some players practiced in their cleats decorated for "My Cause My Cleats." (Photos by Emilee Fails and Karlee Sell/Washington Football Team)
Matsko is very methodical about the books he chooses, Rivera said, because he wants the themes to carry over in life as well as football. "Make Your Bed," for example, focused on the 10 life lessons that McRaven learned from Navy SEAL training. They include working as a team, persevering through difficult circumstances and never quitting.
The connections that can be made to the offensive line are apparent. As Rivera said, there's a different mentality on the offensive line, which requires all five players to work as one. In terms of difficult situations, Washington's front has dealt with injuries to Pro Bowlers, starters and promising draft picks alike. Still the group is among the best in terms of run- and pass-block win-rate and paving the way for the league's ninth-best rushing attack.
"They really are life lessons, everything from leadership lessons to lessons on an individual life," Rivera said. "If a coach gave me something like that, that to me just shows he cares and I think that's important."
The same could be said for "Chop Wood, Carry Water," which tells the story of a boy striving to achieve his dream of becoming a samurai warrior. The book teaches readers how to develop a growth mindset and use challenges to build strengths through focusing on minor details.
Once again, the similarities to football are obvious. Developing the right technique, whether it's on the offensive line or any other position, involves fine tuning smaller details. And since technique can dictate whether reps are won or lost, it's a good mindset to have on the field.
"Not that other coaches don't, but he cares," Riviera said. "He cares beyond just them as football players."
That isn't surprising to Rivera anymore. During his interview to be the Carolina Panthers' head coach, Matsko took off his jacket, loosened his tie, rolled up his sleeves and showed Rivera how he would coach his players. He was convinced after about 30 minutes that Matsko was the right person to coach his offensive line.
"Then he spent the rest of that evening and the next morning with our offensive coaches," Rivera said. "Our coordinator Rob Chudzinski...told me, 'Coach, we need to hire him. We can't let him leave.'"
Matsko has been with Rivera ever since, and he followed the head coach to Washington. He has an old school mentality with a hands-on approach, but there's no arguing with the results.
"He's just really a fascinating man," Rivera said. "I mean, I love who he is and I love the fact that he's been with me going on 11 seasons now."