“Some people might not agree with me, but that’s fine,” Rivera said. “That’s what this is all about. For me personally and for this football team, I’m taking my shot. I’m going to see what happens in these next four [games]. I’m here to win. Now’s an opportunity to see if we can.”
Rivera spent the offseason saying his first season with Washington would be about growth, culture and evaluating Haskins, but during Wednesday’s news conference he cited four reasons for demoting Haskins to third string. The first three were slow development, inexperience in this scheme and the upcoming schedule, which includes three divisional games in a relatively competitive NFC East. If a division rival were 4-0 or 3-1, Rivera said, he might not have made this decision. But at 1-3, Washington is tied with the Dallas Cowboys for second place behind the 1-2-1 Philadelphia Eagles.
The fourth reason for benching Haskins, Rivera said, was a growing frustration among teammates at the quarterback’s lack of progress. The coach said he sensed that frustration on the sideline during games because “the guys want to win.” And while Rivera acknowledged Haskins’s opportunity has been hampered by the novel coronavirus pandemic affecting offseason workouts and by a lack of surrounding playmakers, he emphasized the importance of playing the team’s best quarterback.
The benching of Haskins, a 2019 first-round draft pick, calls into question the team’s future at the position. But Rivera said the move does not necessarily mean the end of Haskins’s time with Washington. The coach praised the quarterback’s “NFL arm,” said he liked what he saw last year and stressed it’s now on Haskins to emerge as a better player. Rivera said he knows some people might say Haskins needs experience as a starter, but he believes “the short-term glory” of competing for a division title is too valuable for the rest of his players.
“He’ll get his opportunity,” Rivera said of Haskins. But “if we’re still trying to teach one guy and the other 52 [players] aren’t given the opportunity to see whether or not we win these next four games, then that’s not fair.”
Teammates have tried to motivate Haskins, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. Earlier this season, the person said, at least one teammate told the 23-year-old he needed to work harder by pointing out that Smith, then the third-stringer, arrived earlier and prepared better than he did. This did not lead to a change in Haskins’s behavior, the person added.
Rivera did not consult with players before making this decision, a person with knowledge of the situation said. The coach spoke to owner Daniel Snyder, who played a significant role in drafting Haskins, and explained the plan. Rivera said Snyder was “very supportive” and told him “you’re going to live with those decisions.” During his news conference, Rivera said he formulated this idea before the season and met with offensive coordinator Scott Turner, who agreed. Later, in his own news conference, Turner said that Haskins, after playing well during training camp, struggled more in games and was repeating some mistakes “over and over and over again.”
“We gave him every opportunity,” Rivera said of Haskins. “We gave him all the reps with the ones. We gave him a chance to start four games and truly evaluate. But with the division where it is right now, I’d be stupid to not give it a shot and see what happens in the next four games.”
At practice Wednesday, Haskins was a conspicuous nonparticipant. He wore his helmet during stretches and warmups, and he stood to the side, arms sometimes folded, watching the other quarterbacks go through individual drills. Rivera said Haskins later “got involved,” and he didn’t hold Haskins’s frustration against him because he remembered being benched as a player.
“We all go through it,” Rivera said. “We all handle things differently. What’s more important is how he comes out of it.”
Now the team turns to Allen and, if anything happens, Smith. Rivera said he elevated Smith to backup because Smith has played in this offensive system before and because he trusts the doctors who approved Smith’s return to the field after a gruesome leg injury in 2018 nearly ended his career. When Allen takes the field Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams, he will become the 30th quarterback to start for Washington since the beginning of the 1993 season.
“I’m excited to get an opportunity,” Allen said. “I’m excited to go play. [It’s] a great challenge in the Rams this week, a really great team off to a hot start. So, yeah, excited.”
This is essentially why Washington traded a fifth-round pick for the 24-year-old Allen this offseason. Allen understands Turner’s scheme from their two years together with the Carolina Panthers. Last season, after Cam Newton suffered a season-ending foot injury, Allen stepped in for the Panthers, starting 12 games. He threw 17 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions while completing 62 percent of his passes.
Allen has “had some success,” Rivera said. “He hasn’t had great success, but he’s had some. That’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for some success. He’s a guy who can manage, a guy who can control.”
While Allen led Carolina to a 5-1 record in his first six games as a starter, things went downhill and the Panthers lost their final eight games. The last four took place after Rivera’s firing, when Turner took over as offensive coordinator. During that stretch, Carolina averaged 15 points per game.
But Turner believes there is reason for optimism. He said Allen grew last year in understanding how to make “the right plays” instead of striving for the heroic ones, and he said this style helped the Panthers stay in road games against good teams, such as the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints.
“It’s not about doing something spectacular,” Turner said. “It’s just consistently doing your job.”
Both Rivera and Turner said Allen learned while watching from the sideline, and they hope Haskins will do the same. But this move, after four weeks, was the opposite of Rivera’s offseason message. This is about winning.
“The best chance to have things done in our offense is in somebody else’s hands,” Rivera said. “That’s what I’m doing. I’m doing that based on what I’ve seen. I just think right now this is the decision I’m making. I could be wrong, or I could be right. We’ll see.”