An unavoidable feeling of nostalgia hung in the air as media members filed into the auditorium at the Washington Commanders' facility. It had been two years since a press conference was held in that room, so who could blame anyone for remembering the last time people outside of team employees were allowed in the building?
Back then, it was Ron Rivera standing at the podium as the new head coach of the franchise. As he laid out his plans for injecting Washington with a sustainable, winning culture, it was clear the team was heading in a new direction. Last Thursday, it was Carson Wentz being introduced as the starting quarterback, and it seemed fitting that both days carried the theme of ushering in a new era.
"To feel that I'm wanted here and people believe in me and support me, I think it'll be a great situation to flourish," Wentz said.
"Wanted" is the key here, and it was a point emphasized by Rivera after the team traded second-, third- and conditional third-round picks to the Indianapolis Colts for Wentz. Rivera made the point for three months that this offseason was pivotal, and he backed that up by going all in on the veteran quarterback.
Technically, Washington had other options. It could have signed someone in free agency or drafted a prospect with the 11th overall pick. So why did Rivera go with Wentz? It came down to the belief that Wentz has the tools to help the offense thrive.
"I believe it's what we're looking for," Rivera said. "His skill set speaks very well for us, especially for what we want to do and how we want to attack our opponents."
The work to evaluate Wentz began at the NFL Scouting Combine, when it was becoming more obvious that the Colts were at least exploring the opportunity to move on from the former Philadelphia Eagle. As Rivera was watching prospects, he also took time to look over the film and numbers from Wentz's career.
There was one fact that kept coming up: Wentz put up Top 10 numbers in yards and touchdowns at various points, including his lone season with Indianapolis.
"We kept saying, 'There's something to this,'" Rivera said. "We spent a lot of time watching…the tape, not just his last season in Indy, but some of the stuff that we saw when he was in Philadelphia."
What they saw was someone who could enhance their offense. Rivera hopes that Wentz will provide a boost to the passing game with his arm strength, which should open up the other strengths of the unit.
"It allows us to throw the ball vertical more so than we had in the past," Rivera said. "It opens up some stuff underneath in the passing game; it opens up some of the running game knowing that you're not going to be able to put eight guys in the box and forcing [the defense] to choose five, six, seven guys in the box."
Scroll through some of the best moments from Washington Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz's first time speaking to the local media. (Emilee Fails/Washington Commanders)
Wentz certainly has had his bright spots. There have also been times where that shine was a little more dull than he expects of himself. The Colts finished 9-8 in 2021, but a two-game losing streak to close out the season pushed them out of the playoffs.
Wentz took some responsibility for that. He performed poorly in both games, he said, and "that was tough to swallow and tough to finish like that."
"Especially when we thought we had a chance to really do something special and make a run," Wentz said. "We just kind of collapsed and I didn't play good enough, well enough at the end there. Things happen. I always believe things happen for a reason. And you get an opportunity, still got an opportunity to come out and prove myself and play the game that I love. I look forward to doing that."
Still, the results were clear to Rivera: when Wentz is at his best, he's one of the better quarterbacks in the league. That eventually led to the Commander trading away draft picks, which are prized possessions for Rivera and the front office, to acquire the signal-caller the team has needed for years.
"Knowing that and not wanting to waste time, we went right after it," Rivera said.
But anyone who knows Rivera will say that talent isn't the only quality he wants on his roster. He requires players to have a team-first mentality and, more importantly for the quarterback position, a strong sense of leadership.
Rivera never had any questions about Wentz when it came to those traits, and that was verified by his former teammates.
"What I found very telling is when two team captains on the team that he just left came out and were dumbfounded that he was being traded, but yet had nothing but positive things to say about him," Rivera said. "That's more than enough as far as I'm concerned. Because the players know.
"The players know exactly who people are. You can't fool them."
Getting a ringing endorsement is a fine thing. Proving it is another matter entirely. Wentz is dedicated to showing why he deserves the support.
"I just think for me, I just come in and earn the respect of, of the guys in the locker room, the coaches, the fans," Wentz said. "I know it's not gonna just be handed to me. I look forward to earning that respect and hopefully being part of something special."
The talent and leadership is enough for Washington to believe that Wentz is the right, and it sounds like Wentz agrees. He doesn't know many players on the roster personally, but he's competed and seen many of them from afar. He's familiar with Terry McLaurin and his ability to burn a secondary, but he also now has Antonio Gibson, Dyami Brown and Cam Sims to work with.
And he's grateful that he no longer has to play against Chase Young and the rest of the Commanders' defensive line.
"The best thing that happened to me last year was that I didn't have to play those guys," Wentz told senior vice president of media and content Julie Donaldson.
For the past two years, Rivera has put in the effort to fill the roster with talent. He's done that, and as a result, the Commanders have put together two seven-win seasons. The team has reached another hump, and it's willing to put more of its cards on the table to become a perennial playoff contender, just like other teams have done in the past.
"Does anybody really care what was traded for [Rams Quarterback] Matthew Stafford last year?" Rivera asked at the Combine. "No. So who knows."
It doesn't sound like Rivera is concerned with what the Commanders had to give up to find their own answer at quarterback.
"He is our QB1 going forward," Rivera said. "And again -- as he said and I do hope -- I'd love to see this be a really long tenure. I really do, and I mean that."