That decision, Rivera detailed to Washington-area reporters ahead of a game Carolina would lose to the Redskins — leading to his firing and eventual hiring as Washington’s coach — coincided with a commitment.
“You’re going to have your ups and downs, and it’s hard to protect those guys. But if you’re going to put them out there and expose them, you’ve got to be able to support them,” Rivera said, remembering Newton’s first months as a rookie quarterback.
He was talking about Newton, who would become the NFL MVP in the 2015 season, when the Panthers went 15-1 before losing in the Super Bowl to the Denver Broncos, but he was answering the question in the context of what was best for Dwayne Haskins, the Redskins’ rookie quarterback who now will be perhaps his most important player in Washington.
Rivera didn’t say much about Haskins during his introductory news conference last week, aside from refusing to anoint him as the starter and saying he “will have to step up and become a leader.” But Rivera already has made one major decision central to Haskins’s development by hiring Scott Turner, with whom he worked in Carolina, as his offensive coordinator, replacing the man most responsible for coaching Haskins during his rookie campaign, Kevin O’Connell.
There also are clues about how Rivera might handle Haskins in the way he approached Newton’s first few seasons.
Rivera’s decision to start Newton was influenced by watching Andy Reid play Donovan McNabb as a rookie when Reid was the Philadelphia Eagles’ first-year head coach in 1999. Rivera was an assistant on Reid’s staff and considers his old boss a mentor. But he also had his own beliefs as an old-fashioned linebacker and former defensive coordinator.
“Andy is an offensive guy. Me, on the defensive side, I think you’ve got to put them out there and let them take their lumps,” Rivera said on the conference call. “But you’ve got to be supportive. You’ve got to be behind them. … You’ve got to be able to protect them and put playmakers around them to help out. That was one of the things we did consciously when I got here, something we reset and did in 2017 with our draft picks [by] going out and getting [running back] Christian McCaffrey and [wide receiver] Curtis Samuel right away and what we did the following year [when] we drafted [wide receiver] DJ Moore.”
McCaffrey has become one of the NFL’s most dynamic players, with 5,443 combined rushing and receiving yards in his three-year career. Samuel and Moore combined for 141 catches for 1,802 yards this season.
It’s reasonable to assume the Redskins could try to surround Haskins with playmakers in a similar fashion. Running back Derrius Guice has the potential to be a difference-maker as a runner and pass catcher, but his first two years were mostly ruined by injuries. Rookie wide receiver Terry McLaurin has the potential to be a Pro Bowl player, and Rivera said on the November call that he liked fellow rookie wideout Kelvin Harmon. But there is little doubt Rivera will look to give Haskins a stronger collection of talent at the skill positions.
The November call came just days after Haskins missed the final snap of his first NFL victory while taking selfies with fans in the front row of the stands. Haskins later said he thought the game had already ended, and he promised the mistake would never happen again, but the incident raised questions about his maturity and readiness to lead.
Rivera brought it up on the conference call, and his words might have said something about the team he wants and the way he would like Haskins to lead. Rather than scold Haskins, he seemed to celebrate the rookie’s exuberance.
“It was kind of fun to see [Haskins] took a selfie and he got a lot of grief for it,” Rivera said. “He’s young, he’s enthusiastic, he brings energy, and that’s the only thing you look for in your young quarterback — that he’s enthusiastic, that he is a guy who is going to bring some energy to the table.”
The hiring of Turner was a significant step, indicating Rivera believes the 37-year-old, who was Carolina’s quarterbacks coach before Rivera’s firing and who replaced his father (and former Redskins coach), Norv Turner, as the offensive coordinator after it, is the right person to lead Washington’s offense. He and Washington’s next quarterbacks coach, expected to be Ken Zampese, will be most responsible for developing Haskins.
A long time remains before Rivera and Haskins step onto a field together. The new coach has to complete his staff, and then there will be offseason meetings and conditioning before organized team activities in the spring. By then, Rivera will have gotten an idea of how practical a comeback by quarterback Alex Smith might be, and he will have decided on at least one veteran to compete with Haskins for the starting job. He will have a much clearer picture of the type of quarterback he thinks Haskins can become.
Until then, the best clues might come from a six-week-old conference call, back when Rivera coached a different team and had no idea Dwayne Haskins would soon be playing for him.
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