Thomas Davis Sr. has played a lot of football and seen his share of different cultures in his 16 seasons.
For half of that time, he was playing under head coach Ron Rivera with the Carolina Panthers, who were reeling after finishing 2-14 in 2010. But Davis watched as the first-time head coach took the worst team in the league and molded it into a Super Bowl contender in the span of four seasons.
There are different circumstances surrounding Rivera's effort to rebuild the Washington Football Team, but from what Davis has seen this season, he thinks his new team is on a similar track.
"It's very similar," said Davis, who announced on Instagram that Sunday night against the Philadelphia Eagles would be his last regular season game. "When you look at the makeup of the football team, you look at the number of high character guys, I think that's important whenever you have a transition. The guys that are on this team have definitely bought into everything that Coach Rivera has been teaching."
Davis, who signed a one-year deal with Washington in March, joined a team that was still figuring out Rivera's coaching style. Aside from bringing in his wealth of experience -- he was fresh off of leading the Los Angeles Chargers with 112 tackles -- his value to Washington came through teaching a talented but young defense about what Rivera expects from his players.
Admittedly, it took some time for his new teammates, particularly those who played under the previous regime, to adjust to Rivera's methods. That process was further hindered by a completely virtual offseason program, a shortened training camp and no preseason games, but Davis started to see changes as the season progressed. His teammates started to shed themselves of old habits, and now that they are starting to combine their talent with commitment to the system, he believes "the sky is the limit" for the group.
"Once guys really bought in, you could see the maturation process start to take place for this football team." Davis said. "Really, as they continue to move forward next year after they add a few pieces, I think this team is gonna be a playoff contender for years to come."
From what Davis heard during his conversations with some of his teammates, everything from the practices to the way meetings were conducted was different from what they had experienced in the past. All of that has been a "huge difference" for the veteran players.
"Those are some of the things that I can really pinpoint that guys have talked about," he said. "'We did this differently' or 'y'all are doing this differently than what we did.' And a lot of them like the new structure and the way things are being done."
Naturally, there are those who will try to compare Rivera's first season in Carolina to Washington's 2020 season. The had similar records the year before he became the head coach and drafted in a similar spot. Washington has already matched the 2011 Panthers' win total (six) with a chance to improve on it to end the regular season.
Those types of similarities stop there for Rivera; the 2011 Panthers were older than the young squad Washington has in 2020. Rivera sees more parallels in the 2014 iteration of the Panthers, who finished the year 7-8-1 and won the NFC South. That team was still more experienced than Washington, but that can be a good thing, especially since Rivera's current team finds itself in the same position to win its division with a younger core.
"We've got a group of young guys right now that are playing," Rivera said. "We've got a sprinkling of vets. Who knows what happens in the next couple years when it comes to adding guys, when it comes to the draft and free agency. ...This could be one of the springboards going forward, hopefully."
In 2014, Rivera asked former Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman to cut a group of veteran players who were stunting the growth of the younger players. That forced the Panthers to rely on their youth more often, and after an ugly 31-13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, the team went on a four-game winning streak to make the playoffs.
"That's what we're seeing here," Rivera said. "I think we're feeding off of the energy level of our young players. I think it's helping the veteran guys to play with energy. I think that's been one of the big things that's helped us."
One year later, the Panthers were in the Super Bowl, but Rivera said the 15-1 record in 2015 was a result of the efforts the team made in 2014 and even 2013, when it finished 12-4, to fine-tune the roster. The team had 10 Pro Bowlers that year, and eight of them were on the 2013 team.
"That kind of showed going forward what it means to have a group of young guys develop over a period of time, have them play together and the next thing you know you're in the Super Bowl."
No one in Washington is mentioning a Super Bowl appearance right now. Even though the team is in position to win the NFC East for the first time since 2015, Rivera is still building the sustainable, winning culture he set out to craft one year ago. But so far, it seems like Washington is on the right path.
"[Rivera] had to really come in and instill his way of doing things the way he wanted the culture to be, and we got it turned around in Carolina pretty quickly, and those are some of the things that you're seeing right now," Davis said. "You're seeing guys that are really buying into what he's teaching. You're seeing guys that are actually loving to come to work and loving to be around, and enjoy playing for this coach. And when you have that, you're going to have success, and I think the guys are definitely really enjoying playing for Coach Rivera, and it's starting to show on the field."