Commanders hearth line of defense coach Sam Mills III, promote Jeff Zgonina

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The Washington Commanders fired line of defense coach Sam Mills III on Tuesday morning, Coach Ron Rivera introduced. The timing was shocking — Rivera had by no means fired a coach throughout coaching camp — and Rivera stated he made the choice not due to the line of defense’s underperformance final season, however due to what he noticed through the offseason and coaching camp.

“There was a little bit of difference in the philosophy,” he stated, declining to supply specifics. “[This was because of] something that I’ve observed, and [I] just felt that this … needed to be done.”

Jeff Zgonina, the crew’s assistant line of defense coach since 2020, was promoted to interchange Mills.

In Mills’s two full seasons, the star-studded line didn’t stay as much as expectations. Accidents and an absence of self-discipline harm the unit, and early final 12 months, Rivera criticized star ends Chase Younger and Montez Sweat for not enjoying their assignments persistently as the road struggled to generate stress and comprise opposing quarterbacks.

Over the weekend, Rivera excused Mills from follow so he may go to Canton, Ohio, for his father’s posthumous enshrinement into the Professional Soccer Corridor of Fame. On Monday, Mills returned and coached his unit. The subsequent day, Rivera fired him earlier than the crew’s 9 a.m. follow.

Rivera stated he didn’t seek the advice of gamers earlier than he made the choice. He stated it was “very difficult, very difficult” to fireside Mills, who spent the primary 15 years of his profession with the Carolina Panthers and labored on Rivera’s employees in Carolina from 2011 by 2019. Mills was amongst Rivera’s first hires in Washington in January 2020.

Shortly after Rivera was employed, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio modified Washington’s scheme from a 3-4 to a 4-3. This meant the line of defense switched methods, using a extra aggressive, upfield model. Some gamers disagreed about which method was higher, and that created friction, in response to three individuals with information of the scenario.

In 2021, the road underperformed, the gamers remained divided, and Mills struggled to regulate the room, two individuals stated. The stress boiled over late final December. Within the second quarter of a blowout loss at Dallas, Mills informed Daron Payne to come back off the sphere for Tim Settle, however Payne refused, two individuals stated. Later, on the sidelines, defensive sort out Jonathan Allen criticized Payne, Payne poked Allen, and Allen swung at Payne — although Mills had put his arm between them.

Early within the offseason, when Rivera met with every of his coaches, he informed Mills he wanted extra from the road, one particular person stated. Washington additionally modified personnel — Matt Ioannidis and Settle out, second-round decide Phidarian Mathis in — however by early August, it nonetheless wasn’t sufficient. Rivera determined to make yet one more change forward of his essential third 12 months.

After talking with Mills, Rivera met with Zgonina, then the road. After six years in Washington, Allen stated “there [are] very few things that can surprise me,” however the timing of Mills’s firing was one in every of them. He stated he’d had “no idea” it was coming.

“At the end of the day, it’s sad,” Allen stated. “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.”

Throughout follow, Zgonina ran the line of defense drills. Zgonina, 52, is a louder, extra demonstrative coach than Mills. He can typically be heard from a distance, and in the future earlier in camp, throughout a drill, he was throwing passes for linemen to follow batting down when he by accident made one too simple.

“That was a s—– throw,” he bellowed, critiquing himself.

On the sphere Tuesday, Corridor of Fame defensive sort out Warren Sapp and lately retired franchise icon Ryan Kerrigan assisted Zgonina. Rivera stated the timing was coincidental — Kerrigan has been shadowing coaches for a couple of weeks; Sapp helped out the crew throughout offseason exercises — and that each ex-players will stay of their unofficial advisory roles. Brent Vieselmeyer, the assistant defensive backs/nickel coach, will assist the ends.

One of many largest variations between Mills and Zgonina is that Mills stopped enjoying soccer after school and Zgonina saved going. In 1993, Zgonina left Purdue for the NFL and performed for seven groups throughout 17 seasons, together with as a teammate of Mills’s father in Carolina in 1995. Zgonina retired after the 2009 season, began his teaching profession in 2013 and served because the line of defense coach in San Francisco in 2017 and 2018. He was fired in January 2019 and sat out the season earlier than returning to teaching in Washington.

In his introductory information convention, Zgonina sounded shocked — “I woke up this morning, had no idea,” he stated — and downplayed the concept that having performed within the NFL would assist him. He stated the Commanders’ scheme gained’t change, the methods gained’t change, and he gained’t change.

“I was brought here to help win a championship, and that’s the main goal,” he stated. “I’m not changing anything. I am who I am. What you’ve seen the last few weeks, last couple years, that’s what you’re going to see.”

However Zgonina admitted it was tough to see Mills fired.

“It’s always hard,” he stated. “[Mills] is a friend; he always will be a friend. I’ve known him almost his whole life because I played with his dad, so it is hard. But also, I have a job to do, as he had a job to do. We’ve got to keep moving forward.”

Nicki Jhabvala and PJ Morales contributed to this report.

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