From 2006 to 2009, Rivera interviewed to be the coach of eight teams, only to be told no each time. The rejection perplexed him, he has said, especially because he was considered one of the league’s top defensive coordinators, helping lead the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl and the San Diego Chargers to the playoffs twice in three years.
“It was a hard time because he knew he was ready for some of those jobs,” said his good friend Leslie Frazier, the defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills.
And yet here’s the thing about Rivera in those days. He was frustrated, but he refused to stay angry for long.
“He handled it with grace,” Frazier said. “You know the saying ‘water off a duck’s back?’ That’s Ron.”
Quietly, Rivera kept pursuing those jobs. At one point, he said this offseason, he contacted some of the first people who interviewed him to ask them what he had done wrong. He quizzed former coaches and general managers about details such as the salary cap so he would be sure to have a plan that covered every possibility. Eventually, the Carolina Panthers hired him in 2011, and over the next 8½ years, he would deliver the best winning percentage in the team’s history, with three straight NFC South championships and a Super Bowl appearance.
“It’s funny because you state ‘interviewed eight times’ as though it was a burden,” said Ryan Kalil, his center with the Panthers. “Knowing Coach, he would view it as eight opportunities.”
Now, with Rivera, 58, set to coach his first Washington game this Sunday against Philadelphia, those years of rejection seem to matter a lot. They forced Rivera to solidify his core coaching philosophy, he and others have said, putting together a plan he would call a “sustainable winning culture” during his years in Carolina. He has spoken often about the culture he is hoping to install in Washington, a franchise in need of a fresh start.
But the challenges in his way are difficult, going far beyond having to lead a young team that finished 3-13 a season ago during a global pandemic. The franchise is in the most tumultuous period of Daniel Snyder’s 21-year ownership. In just the past two months, Washington has dropped its 87-year-old team name “Redskins” and been the subject of sexual harassment allegations by 40 former employees in a pair of Washington Post stories, which led to the launch of an independent investigation into the team’s culture.
Then, two weeks ago, Rivera announced that he has squamous cell carcinoma, a cancer in a lymph node in his neck. While he has said the cancer has a high cure rate and he will continue to coach the team while getting treatments in September and October, he also could miss several days of practice or even games as he recovers — which was reinforced this week when he was absent from Tuesday’s practice. Still, as with everything that has happened this summer, it has largely been business as usual around his team.
“I’m fine. I’m going to work through this,” Rivera said last month after revealing his diagnosis, adding later: “Believe me, I’m not being rosy about this. I’m being honest. I’m going to struggle. So those days that I do, I’m going to have to ask the coaches to step up and I’m going to have to ask the players to step up and take ownership.”
Rivera declined through a team spokesman to be interviewed for this article. But his past public comments and interviews with friends and former players reveal details of his leadership approach as he embarks upon the challenge of coaching the Washington Football Team.
A coach who listens
Rivera has a saying he used often with his players in Carolina: “The best team has a great sense of family, the best family has a great sense of culture, and within that culture is tremendous character.”
When people who have worked with or played for Rivera are asked about what makes him a good leader, they don’t talk about the way he commands a room or barks instructions. They talk about his willingness to take in what other people say.
“Ron is a good listener,” said former Washington Coach Norv Turner, who has worked with Rivera twice.
Former players of Rivera’s in Carolina describe a dynamic in which Rivera spent as much time asking them about their lives and the things they think might work in a game as he did giving them his opinion. These conversations empowered them, they said, giving them a feeling of having a coach who truly cared about what was on their minds.
Mike McCartney, who was a scout with the Bears when Rivera began coaching as a low-level assistant in Chicago (where Rivera was a linebacker on the 1985 Super Bowl champions) and later was a scout in Philadelphia when Rivera coached the Eagles’ linebackers, has long believed there are two kinds of listening: “listening and wanting to listen.” In McCartney’s experience, most coaches go through the motions while never actually doing so.
But whenever McCartney, now a player agent, came to Rivera’s Eagles office to talk about a prospect before the draft, Rivera always would stop what he was working on, pull up the player’s game tape and pay attention.
“A caricature of a strong head coach or a strong chief executive of any type is a little bit of bluster, a little bit of ‘I have the answer,’ ” said new Washington Football Team president Jason Wright, who had several long conversations with Rivera before he took over the team’s business operations last month. “I don’t get that off of Coach Rivera. You get the sense that 99 percent of the time he has the damn answer already, but that doesn’t come off when you talk to him. He comes off as open and willing to receive new information to make a better decision.”
What those in Carolina understood and some in Washington have come to realize is that Rivera is trying to create a family, not in the vague way that coaches and athletes often compare their teams to families, but in the true sense of the word — the way he grew up on Army bases with parents of Puerto Rican descent who had a strict sense of structure but a broad sense of community.
In Carolina, Rivera famously moved his office from the upstairs executive suite to a hallway near the locker room to be more accessible to his players. He was hard in meetings and could yell at practice — something he did early in Washington’s training camp — and yet he also had an innate sense of knowing when to soften the tension. His players attributed this to the fact he was once an NFL player himself, and after particularly rough training camp days with the Panthers, he would sometimes abruptly stop a meeting and engage the team in something silly, such as lighthearted teasing of rookies.
“Sometimes the best breaks are the ones that come as a surprise because you just need a mental rest,” said Luke Kuechly, a star linebacker on Rivera’s Panthers teams. “He understood that, and a lot of that came from his ability to trust and listen to players.”
For the first three months of the 2014 season, the Panthers were a disappointment. They were 3-8-1 and a game out of last place, after having won the NFC South the year before. The playoffs seemed impossible, and the players were discouraged. But Rivera wasn’t.
“He always came in and said, ‘Every day we have to get better,’ ” Kuechly said.
“He would constantly talk about focusing on what we could control and ‘being where your feet are,’” Kalil said. “He put blinders on us and pushed us to be present in the moment — ‘control your attitude, preparation and effort.’”
Carolina won its next four games and the division, albeit with a 7-8-1 record, then went on to beat the Arizona Cardinals in the first week of the playoffs.
The following preseason, the Panthers’ top wide receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, tore his ACL and was lost for the season. Kalil remembers some players in the locker room declaring the season over before it started, but “Coach wouldn’t let us buy into it,” Kalil said.
The Panthers finished 15-1 and went to the Super Bowl.
'A stabilizing force’
When Panthers Owner David Tepper fired Rivera on Dec. 3, two days after a loss to Washington, Rivera addressed his players the day after, then held an emotional 30-minute news conference during which he admitted that the firing was “a bitter pill to swallow.”
“Show me another coach that’s parted ways with their team in the middle of the season and is given a press conference followed by an outpouring of love and respect from current and former players,” Kalil said.
The departure stung, and it left Rivera determined to coach right away, he has said, rather than take a year away from football the way many coaches do after being let go.
“He’s got fire under him that wants to prove to people that he can still do this,” said Frazier, who played with Rivera on the Bears and coached with him in Philadelphia before later becoming the Minnesota Vikings’ head coach. “The way things ended in Charlotte isn’t the way you would want to end it.”
Some current and former NFL coaches and executives, speaking on the condition of anonymity to give frank opinions, have wondered whether Rivera jumped too quickly in coming to Washington to work for Snyder, an owner with a reputation for impatience who has gone through nine coaches over two decades. Snyder had begun aggressively pursuing Rivera a week after his Carolina firing, but Rivera could have chosen not to go for the only open coaching job and wait for what would be inevitable openings with the Browns, Giants and Cowboys.
But Rivera has said Snyder impressed him in those early meetings and that he found the owner pleasant and enthusiastic. Rivera always has loved the Washington team, despite spending most of his childhood on Fort Ord in California, near Monterey Bay. The team’s young players intrigued him, and he saw a chance to build a franchise again, just as he did with the Panthers.
There is also this sense from those who know Rivera that he might be the ideal coach for Snyder — strong and confident enough to stand up to the owner but perhaps more flexible than past coaches such as Mike Shanahan and Marty Schottenheimer, with whom Snyder clashed.
“Ron will be a stabilizing force on the organization,” says Turner, who was the first Washington head coach to be fired by Snyder. “I honestly think Ron was really the right guy for this situation. Ron will do good for Dan.”
Through all the turmoil, Rivera has said that he and Snyder remain close, talking daily. Even when several people familiar with the team’s operations said that Rivera had become worn down handling both football and business issues around the club in the months before Wright’s hiring, Rivera fiercely denied the assertions.
“I had no illusions that the first year wouldn’t be hard as hell,” he said in a July interview. “Dan knows it’s going to be hard, too.”
Frazier was asked about Snyder, a man he does not know. It was in late June, back before the chaos that came to Washington later in the summer, and a reporter wanted to know how Rivera would be able to work with the owner. For a moment, Frazier was silent.
“Ron has the ability to get along with all types of people,” Frazier finally said. “His personality allows him to handle almost any negative situation. He has an ability to communicate with all kinds of people and make them feel like they are in control even when they aren’t in control.”
‘It’s going to be hard’
Right now, all Rivera can control is his team. It has been a long and frustrating summer, in part because the league’s novel coronavirus restrictions turned offseason workouts into video conference calls — a particularly harsh blow for a coach of a new team.
Yet he has seen signs that his new culture is taking hold, such as the way some older players have pushed the younger ones on the field but made efforts to help them away from it. The word Rivera uses is “unselfish.” The sooner players stop making things about themselves is the sooner the winning begins.
“It’s going to be hard,” Rivera said recently. “It’s not going to help it overnight, but I just see guys being more aware of their teammates and working together.”
In recent weeks, as the chaos has grown around the franchise, Rivera has urged his desire to address issues inside the organization while also trying to “move forward” — not unlike the way he tried to push his Panthers players through seemingly lost seasons. When his current coaches and players talk about him, including how he has responded to his cancer treatments, they use words like “rock” and “consistent.”
Nothing about his approach changes, they say, regardless of what else swirls around him.
“If there’s someone who can handle a tense situation,” Frazier said, “it’s Ron.”