Then Washington crashed in the first quarter of its first game against Philadelphia, only to scramble from being down 17-0 to win, 27-17. As his wife, Stephanie, once a professional basketball coach, drove him home from FedEx Field that afternoon, she told him: “You know, your preseason was in the first quarter.”
But after the high of the Philadelphia win subsided and the Arizona Cardinals trampled on any idea of a magical revival for a team that went 3-13 last season, the reality finally settled in around Washington. This is a year for rebuilding, and the season’s first weeks are very much a kind of preseason, even while the team is trying to win games.
This balance is a tricky one. In recent years, as collective bargaining agreements lightened training camp practices, New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick has used Septembers to figure out what his players do best before using that knowledge to drive the Patriots through the seasons’ second halves and into the playoffs. This Washington team isn’t nearly as deep or as experienced as Belichick’s, and Rivera has only started instilling the culture he believes will bring consistent winning.
Rivera’s open admission that kicking a field goal from the 6-yard line down 20-0 to Arizona was to spare his players the shame of being shut out probably surprised many accustomed to the go-go-go drive of NFL coaches, as did his refusal to use late-game timeouts to ignite a far-fetched comeback. He added he didn’t want to expose his players to injuries that sometimes occur when they overextend in the rush to come back in games.
“We got 14 games left to play,” he said. “We got an opportunity to learn and grow.”
No matter how exhilarating the Philadelphia victory might have been for Washington and its fans, the reality of this season is that it’s a time for building. Rivera opened a small window into his thinking the day after the Cardinals loss when he admitted that the sight of star guard Brandon Scherff limping off the field earlier in the game with what looked at the time to be a serious knee injury had “concerned” him.
Whatever winning happens in 2020 probably won’t be enough to push Washington into the postseason. He is coaching these first weeks not only like a preseason but also to create something bigger next season and the season after that.
Losing Scherff, whom the coach considers a leader on an offense too young to have that many, doesn’t help long-term growth. Losing more players Rivera perceives as essential to the future in a desperate attempt to win a game that’s almost certainly unwinnable makes little sense.
What might have been most surprising was how honest Rivera was about it.
Rivera has said he took the Washington job because he likes the team’s young players and appears to believe he can win if those players will buy into this culture. Still, he seems to realize the challenge of not only rebuilding a broken franchise but doing so in the midst of a pandemic.
Earlier this week, Rivera pondered the plague of Week 2 injuries around the league and surmised that players are physically between what would be the second and third preseason games — had there been any. The flood of top players who had their seasons ruined by injuries Sunday, including the New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley and the San Francisco 49ers’ Nick Bosa, would alarm any coach.
“So we’re asking these players to go from zero to 60 at such a high, intense level so quickly,” he said. What was the point in pushing them extra hard in Arizona when losing appeared certain?
What he didn’t talk about is the convenient opportunity Sunday’s loss might have provided. While coming back to beat Philadelphia might have given his players confidence rarely seen on recent Washington teams, a comeback the next week against the Cardinals could have kept his players from understanding what they were doing wrong to fall behind by three scores in the first place. A 1-1 record provides for a more attentive audience in team meetings than 2-0.
“He loves the process and constantly strives to learn and evolve, especially in failure because failures present the strongest teachable moments,” Ryan Kalil, Rivera’s center on the Carolina Panthers, said this summer.
The loss to the Cardinals gave Rivera plenty of teachable material. The lessons take time; rebuilding a football team doesn’t happen instantly. In many ways, the defeat was a bad preseason showing that happened to count. There will be more fourth-quarter deficits, more chances to go for touchdowns over field goals, more timeouts to call in the hope of an improbable comeback.
The team playing for real in September is also playing the preseason games the pandemic wiped out in August.
“We’re trying to shuttle in some guys and get an opportunity to see what we have because if you don’t do that you will never know,” Rivera said in his Wednesday teleconference.
Because finding out might be the most important task of this season’s first weeks.
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