The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ron Rivera’s game management draws scrutiny, but the coach defends his long-term vision

Ron Rivera made two controversial decisions against the Cardinals that made it look like he wasn't trying to win. But Rivera believes he made the smart moves for the long term. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

GLENDALE, ARIZ. — One week after an aggressive fourth-down call keyed a comeback victory against the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Football Team Coach Ron Rivera was more conservative Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. Two of his decisions in particular during Washington’s 30-15 loss — kicking a field goal from the 6-yard-line and not using any of his three second-half timeouts late in the game — drew criticism from broadcasters, fans and players. They showed that winning might not have been Washington’s only objective.

The decisions were controversial because they showed a lack of urgency. But they also highlighted the difficulty of Rivera’s position. The coach must weigh competing interests — win now and think long term — while keeping his players motivated.

At the beginning of this rebuild, Rivera must be judicious with his aggression. He will have to feel out when to push and when to play it safe because, while he has admitted the team will struggle, the culture he is instilling is for Washington to play hard until the end. This is really why, after Arizona seized a commanding early lead, Washington fought back and forced him to face those two difficult decisions in the first place.

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The challenges started late in the third quarter, when Washington’s dormant offense showed a spark of life. Trailing 20-0, Washington marched 52 yards — easily its longest drive of the day to that point — and had first and goal from the Arizona 5. Then the offense stalled. Right tackle Morgan Moses got the line’s first holding penalty of the season. It was suddenly fourth and goal from the 6.

If Washington were trying to win, a field goal wouldn’t have helped. A 20-3 deficit is still a three-score hole. A week earlier, in a tie game, Rivera had gone for it on fourth and goal from the 1, and though he considered going for it again this week, he ultimately sent out kicker Dustin Hopkins. He said he wanted to give his young team a moral victory, “something to have a little enthusiasm about.”

“At that point, we were being shut out,” Rivera added, visibly disdainful of the words “shut out.” “And that’s the one thing I don’t want these guys to have to feel is to have to deal with being shut out.”

The second controversial decision came late in the fourth quarter, after the offense clicked for two long touchdown drives on back-to-back possessions. There was a glimmer of hope even though Washington trailed 27-15 with 6:38 left when Arizona took over at its own 16-yard line.

Yet as the Cardinals drove and drove, Rivera never used any of his timeouts. Arizona dribbled the clock down to 26 seconds before it finally kicked a field goal.

“I don’t want to expose my players to injury,” Rivera explained. “It’s a long season. We’ve got 14 games left to play. We got an opportunity to learn and grow, and that’s probably, to me, a little bit more important right now than exposing our guys to getting injured in a situation like that.”

For an example, he pointed to Brandon Scherff. Washington lost its Pro Bowl right guard to a right leg injury just before halftime, and the team doesn’t know when or whether he will return. The risk involved in each play of a game, Rivera argued, is too great to force it.

A reporter followed up: Do you think you would have approached the situation differently if you had more time with your team this offseason, if you felt more confident in what you had?

“No, I don’t,” Rivera said, doubling down on his assertion to avoid unnecessary injury risks. He called pushing it in those situations “fruitless,” though he also acknowledged he might have used the timeouts if the game were closer than 12 points.

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For Rivera, a proud players’ coach, this was the opposite of the previous Sunday’s decision to go for it on fourth and goal. That was easy, popular, a display of faith in his guys. This was harder, and quarterback Dwayne Haskins said it prompted some dissatisfaction on the sideline. Haskins, whom Rivera challenged to become a better leader, didn’t weigh in on Rivera’s decisions himself — “It’s out of my control,” he said — instead noting the most important thing he could do was try to keep his teammates upbeat.

“[It’s] trying to find that happy medium of guys being frustrated, wanting to win, and … things that coaches do,” Haskins said. “That's what the coach wants to do, and we trust in the coach. That's the process of playing on a football team. You can't make all decisions by yourself.”

For a coach such as Rivera, who emphasizes adapting to each situation, this is the hard part. There are times to push forward, such as in Week 1 against the Eagles, and times to pull back. This week, Rivera saw his team surging. He saw it playing hard until the end as he had asked it to do since training camp, but he couldn’t push anymore. It wasn’t worth it.

“I’ve played this game as well as coached it,” he said. “I’ve seen people do things and call timeouts and then run a play and somebody gets hurt. That, to me, is counterproductive to what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to develop a football team.”