Why Commanders fired defensive line coach Sam Mills III a month before regular season

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Commanders defensive line coach Sam Mills III spent the past weekend in Canton, Ohio, as his father, Sam Mills II, was posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. On Tuesday, he found out he was out of a job. 

The Commanders announced Mills had been relieved of his duties as the team's defensive line coach, with assistant defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina being shifted up to the position.

"Jeff played the game, so he has a tremendous amount of experience and knowledge that he does share with the players," coach Ron Rivera said. "He's got tremendous enthusiasm, so he'll continue to be that guy for them."

The decision comes just four days before the team's first preseason game against the Panthers on Aug. 13, and 33 days before the team's season-opening matchup against the Jaguars on Sept. 11.

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Here's why Washington decided to part ways with Mills.

Why Commanders fired Sam Mills III

The decision to let Mills go is not entirely surprising. It's the timing that is more shocking.

NBC Sports Washington reported in January Mills did not "have the ear of the position group, and suggested there was the possibility for a coaching change at the position.

Despite the Commanders boasting one of the top trios of defensive linemen in Jonathan Allen, Chase Young and Daron Payne, Washington had only the 11th-best pass-rush grade per Pro Football Focus and had the 17th-most sacks in the NFL at 38, though Young missed eight games.

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Rivera described the decision as "very difficult," but said this was something he had observed during the offseason and training camp and decided it "needed to be done."

"I've known Sam a long time, and he's a very good football coach and I really appreciate everything he's done," Rivera said. "He helped us win the division our first year and just things got tough last year. But there's some things I felt I wanted to change."

Mills was originally brought on as an assistant coach with the Panthers, with whom his father spent the final three years of his pro career, in 2005. Mills' father was a defensive coaching assistant and linebackers coach for the Panthers until he died on April 18, 2005, from cancer complications.

When Rivera was named Carolina's head coach in 2011, he promoted Mills to assistant defensive line coach. The final two years with the Panthers, Mills was the team's defensive line coach.

When Rivera went to coach Washington in 2020, Mills came with him as the defensive line coach.

Allen told the Richmond Times Dispatch that in the NFL, people have to remember that "it's a great game but a terrible business."

"Obviously it wasn't ideal for him, but as a team we have to focus and keep moving forward," Allen said. "I love coach Sam and I wish him the best, but my focus is on everybody who's here and making them better. That's what I'll focus on."

Edward Sutelan is a content producer at The Sporting News.