Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY
Published 1:34 p.m. ET Aug. 15, 2020 | Updated 1:50 p.m. ET Aug. 15, 2020
SportsPulse: We are less than a month away from the scheduled kickoff of the NFL season. Here is our preseason power rankings for 2020. There are plenty of surprises.
Yeah, Dan Snyder still owns the franchise, but the buck sure seems to stop with Ron Rivera.
Good luck with that.
Washington has for so long been like a Bermuda Triangle for NFL coaches – including interim coaches. Rivera is the franchise’s 10th head coach since Snyder took control in 1999 – with the next calamity looming.
If Rivera, 58, thought he knew the hot water he was getting into with the league’s toughest head coaching job, well, he really knows now.
Just this summer: The racist team name was finally scrapped, with the generic Washington Football Team handle adopted until further notice. The Washington Post revealed allegations from more than a dozen former female employees who said they were sexually harassed amid a toxic organizational environment. Derrius Guice, a once-promising (and now released) running back, was arrested on domestic violence charges that included alleged strangulation of his girlfriend.
This, while like all coaches, challenged to get a football team ready to play during a pandemic. If only the barometer for success for Rivera were simply about W’s. In this case, it’s a matter of changing the culture – and not the typical culture stuff you hear when new coaches take over new jobs, such as needing to light a fire for work ethic. It’s so much more than that for Rivera.
Suddenly, the man called “Riverboat Ron” is also the face and voice – and voice of reason, I might add – of the organization, tapped for the answers that extend far beyond X’s and O’s. With Snyder typically out of view and former team president Bruce Allen ousted, much of the damage-control, image-building falls on Rivera, granted control of the entire football operations just weeks after he was dumped by the Carolina Panthers.
Then again, Snyder is fortunate to have Rivera now. Although the final two seasons of Rivera’s nine-year run as Carolina’s coach flamed out, he undoubtedly acquired some through-the-fire experience that he can draw on. The Panthers went into instant turmoil in late 2017 after Sports Illustrated uncovered sexual harassment and racial allegations against team owner Jerry Richardson, forcing him to quickly sell the franchise. Rivera found himself pressed for answers – publicly and internally with the team – that went way beyond the sidelines.
“When you look at him coming over and kind of taking this situation over, and everything that has gone on within this organization, I feel like he’s kind of done something similar in Carolina,” said Thomas Davis, the 16th-year linebacker who played the bulk of his career in Carolina. “When we had the situation with our owner in Carolina, he had to step up and be the face of that and not shy away from it.
“That’s the kind of leader Coach Rivera is.”
That Davis maintained during a Zoom conference on Friday that helping Rivera establish a new culture was one of the biggest factors for signing with Washington adds a layer of credibility to the coach’s reputation for connecting with players. Rivera broke into the NFL in 1984 as a linebacker for the Chicago Bears under D-coordinator Buddy Ryan, who later became a coaching mentor.
“Coach Rivera has really been good on all the different levels that he’s been on and the different teams he’s gotten guys to buy in,” Davis said. “I don’t see it being any different here. I’m just here to help that process in any way I can.”
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The swift release of Guice was a no-brainer, given the severity of the charges and the controversy surrounding the team about apparent insensitivity toward women. Yet it also sent a clear message that needed to be delivered without hesitation. After Guice was cut, Rivera said, “Each situation, each circumstance is unique. Each one will be handled and dealt with differently.”
Washington, for instance, has paused as the case proceeds with new receiver Cody Latimer, who is on the Commissioner’s Exempt List while facing five charges, including illegally discharging a firearm, stemming from an altercation in May at a poker game in Colorado. During Latimer’s initial hearing, his attorney told the court that he had been contacted by law enforcement investigating allegations of sexual assault against a person inin the altercation and involving Latimer’s 4-year-old son.
“When the Cody Latimer thing came out, there were some things we hadn’t known,” Rivera told reporters recently. “So we’re now in the position of where we’re just going to continue to monitor it and see what happens.”
Ultimately, Rivera will likely be judged on whether he can win with a franchise that was 3-13 in 2019 and hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2005 season. There are compelling on-the-field subplots, such as the development of second-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins and the comeback of veteran quarterback Alex Smith. The defense has a projected star to build around in defensive end Chase Young, drafted No. 2 overall, who joins a line that includes last year’s first-round pick, Montez Sweat.
Yet the culture Rivera can build will be the foundation of whether the football product can thrive again for what was once one of the NFL’s signature franchises.
Rivera has survived challenges. In 2013, the Panthers were 1-3 when 80% of respondents to a poll by The Charlotte Observer said he should be fired – and he wound up winning the first of his two NFL Coach of the Year awards after the team rallied to a 12-4 finish and division title. After a blowout loss in Super Bowl 50 was followed by a 6-10 season, he produced another playoff berth. Then came the drama involving Richardson.
This challenge, though, looks like it will be Rivera’s toughest one yet.