Veteran free agents helping coach Dan Quinn 'recalibrate' franchise in Washington

TE Zach Ertz is one of several veteran free agent signees imparting wisdom in Washington. Courtesy of Washington Commanders

ASHBURN, Va. -- As Washington right guard Sam Cosmi settled into a three-point stance during a recent spring practice, he heard linebacker Bobby Wagner calling out what would happen after the snap. Wagner yelled that Cosmi was going to pull on the play, signaling a run. When Cosmi heard Wagner, he had one thought: "What the heck?"

After the play -- which he indeed pulled on -- Cosmi asked Wagner how he knew.

"I was trying to disguise it," Cosmi said of his intentions on the play. "I asked him what he saw and he was like, 'You were leaning.'"

For Cosmi, it could prove to be a valuable lesson this season. For Washington, it served as a reminder why it signed Wagner and other veterans such as tight end Zach Ertz and running back Austin Ekeler. As the Commanders rebuild -- or, as coach Dan Quinn called it, "recalibrate" -- they targeted players they knew who could help establish expectations beyond their on-field performance. All three signed one-year deals, and time will tell what each has left -- Ekeler is the youngest at 29.

For a franchise trying to right itself -- after a 4-13 season and only six winning seasons since 1998 -- those factors can help.

"You don't have to look too far to watch their practice habits, how they do things, follow a process or a routine, that's what I'm looking for from those guys," Quinn said. "Just doing what they do also can be a multiplier."

In other words, the more players they have who have a certain approach -- and who can still produce -- the more others are likely to adopt their habits.

"They've seen the highs and lows," offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury said. "They've seen the good teams, the bad teams, and so just talking through what a good team looked like, what their standards were, their practices, how guys worked, and then the teams that could have been good and weren't, what were the pitfalls with that? They've all been really good as far as sharing that, being open and being leaders, which is not easy to do when you come into a new place, but they really embraced it. I think the guys have embraced them."

Ekeler said it starts above them.

"The leadership comes from the top down as far as the culture you're trying to set," he said. "When you have leadership that can hold that standard and have been around the league and you bring coaches that have the same type of energy, you can really create a special culture that goes and helps win the games. It's not necessarily the stuff that is measurable, but it's the stuff that helps you increase the things that are."

Among the players, a lot of it begins with Wagner, a consummate leader whose resume includes 10 All-Pro selections -- six first-team -- and nine Pro Bowls.

Wagner said he studies leaders from other industries, whether political (Barack Obama) or entertainment (Jay-Z). He has read multiple books on leadership. And he watched his current position coach, Ken Norton Jr., how he related to others while in a similar position when Wagner arrived in Seattle a dozen years ago. Wagner said Norton, also a former linebacker, could relate to players at every position group.

"Everybody kind of gravitated towards him, and he had a strong relationship with everybody," Wagner said. "So when things got tough, I watched him be the person that could motivate the guy out of that funk or motivate him to do more work. I would say it definitely starts there."

That's why he and Ertz both said they first want to get to know their teammates. Wagner said he starts by observing and asking questions and pieces together information on a player's past to better know how he might help.

"There's so many different reasons that people play football," Wagner said. "The only way you can motivate somebody or connect with somebody is to figure out why they're playing. And once you figure out why they're playing, you know what to do when things are going and you want to keep it going, right, things not going and you want to get back on track. Everybody got to be reminded why they started this game.

"A lot of it is knowing what somebody looks like normally and what they look like when it's off."

Or it's sharing a tip with an offensive player such as Cosmi.

"I read body language for a living, to an extent," Wagner said. "I've been around the game for a long time, so I see stuff. So you might think that you can get away with it with an average linebacker, [but] I've seen the body language."

After Washington drafted tight end Ben Sinnott in the second round, Ertz contacted him -- just to start establishing a relationship.

"Knowing they were already ahead of them before they even got here, that's what leadership is all about," Quinn said.

It's a role Ertz said he has embraced as he has gotten older, focusing on it much more than he did when younger.

"It's not like I'm out there holding their hand by any means," Ertz said. "I try and pull them aside and say, 'Hey, this is how I would maybe do this. This is what I think you could maybe work on.' But first you have to have a personal relationship with someone, know that I care about them. It's not just me being the salty vet that's out there trying to tell them what to do every play because they've got a coach for that."

The leadership manifests itself in different ways. It could be Ertz working on a specific route to get the footwork and timing down. Other times it's Wagner pulling a player aside for quick tutelage on a coverage or concept. Fellow linebacker Frankie Luvu, another free agent signee entering his seventh season, said he has paid attention to Wagner's routine even in the spring.

"How he takes care of his body, how he watches tape, how he's eating," Luvu said, "and it makes me like year seven looking at that man like man, he's doing at a high level right now. Why not stick to that?"

After watching Wagner, Luvu said he was staying longer after some practices working with Wagner on various aspects of his game -- such as recognizing receivers' splits and what they might reveal.

Other teammates notice, too.

"Man, he just brings a winning presence, a winning culture, the way he works every day," defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said. "When you see a guy like that, in year 13, first-ballot Hall of Famer, work as hard as he does there's really no excuse for anybody else."