Thomas Davis Sr.
Thomas Davis Sr. Credit: Courtesy Washington Football Team

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Players and coaches on the Washington Football Team have heard the joke: With everyone that head coach Ron Rivera brought to D.C. with him from his tenure in Carolina, the team’s next name might as well be the Washington Panthers.

Rivera’s Panthers transplants include no fewer than 13 coaches, four players, a senior vice president, a director of pro scouting, and a head trainer. As the new administration attempts to correct a culture that’s disappointed its fan base both on and off the field for years, none of those additions is as important as linebacker Thomas Davis Sr.

At 37, Davis is the most senior player on Washington’s roster, and the one who’s best suited to instill the Rivera way at the peer-to-peer level. More than just being familiar with the coach’s strategies, he’ll be relied upon to leverage his reputation as a locker room leader.

He’s up for that challenge. Being part of a culture change, Davis says, was one of the main reasons why he signed.

“Right now, more so than ever, it takes veteran leaders to step up and help that process along the way, and I feel like when you look across the board, across this team, we have a core group of guys that are capable of helping coach get that done,” Davis says. “I just want to be one of those guys.”

Although former team president Bruce Allen insisted last October that Washington’s culture was “actually damn good,” anyone watching knew the opposite was true. No other team has dealt with as many off-the-field embarrassments and controversies in the past 12 months alone: the Trent Williams holdout saga, the team’s decision to change its nickname following pressure from corporate sponsors, the allegations of sexual harassment and verbal abuse made by 15 former employees, and the recent arrest of running back Derrius Guice for allegedly strangling his girlfriend. (Guice was quickly waived and two women have since made allegations that he raped them while he was a college student.)

That’s to say nothing of the actual football team, which had the NFL’s fourth-worst cumulative record of the 2010s and last won a playoff game in January 2006.

There’s a mammoth task ahead for Rivera, and one person can’t fix it all. Davis says Rivera is known for listening to his veteran players, and given their long-standing relationship, the coach likely will lean on Davis to get his teammates, as he puts it, to “buy in.”

The respect Davis has earned around the league ought to help. Early in his career, he became the first pro athlete to come back from three ACL tears on the same knee. He was a Panthers captain for all eight years he played for Rivera and won the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award in 2014 for his community service.

Davis, a first-round draft pick in 2005, says he was surrounded by “a ton of veteran leadership” in his early years in Carolina, which helped him develop his own style. 

“I don’t want to be one of those people that’s always coming in just talking to people and telling them, ‘Hey, you need to do this, you need to do that,’ when I’m not willing to do those things on my own,” Davis says. “You take that approach of leading by example, not being afraid to step up and talk and speak when something needs to be said or just going out and doing your job day in and day out.”

Those who knew Davis in Carolina have spoken glowingly of his character. When new Washington linebackers coach Steve Russ began coaching there in 2018, he said Davis reminded him of former teammate, Steve Atwater, a 2020 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee whom Russ felt was the best “player-leader” he’d ever encountered.

“When I started coaching Thomas, I said to myself, ‘Wow, he’s better than Steve,’” Russ told reporters earlier this month. “And that’s no knock on Steve. That’s just how exceptional Thomas is as a leader … You couldn’t ask for a better example for some of those younger guys, because nobody holds himself accountable as much as Thomas Davis. ‘I’m old, I get a free pass,’ all of this other stuff, ‘I’ve been in the league forever.’ There [is] no corners-cutting. When he doesn’t live up to the standard that he’s set for himself, he’ll be the first to tell you that.”

Quarterback Kyle Allen, who was traded from Carolina to Washington this offseason, also doled out praise. “I think a lot of people, especially in the locker room, people respect him the second he walks in,” Allen said in March.

Davis’ signing might have slipped under the radar, partly because he was never a household name outside the Charlotte area. Yet Russ reminded reporters, almost as an afterthought, that Davis can play at a high level.

A three-time Pro Bowler, and just five years removed from a first-team All-Pro selection, Davis was one of the NFL’s most productive tacklers of the past few decades. In 2019, his lone season with the Los Angeles Chargers, Davis amassed 112 tackles as a 36-year-old.

That doesn’t mean Davis needs to start every game for Washington. The most important job he’ll do in 2020 might be setting an example for the team’s otherwise young linebacking corps, and by extension, the rest of the team.

“It’s never been about Thomas Davis coming in and being the man,” Davis says. “I just want to come in and help this defense succeed as much as possible. Wherever they ask me to do that at, that’s what I’m going to do.”