Only 12 hours removed from his team’s blowout win over the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Football Team Coach Ron Rivera was celebrated for an even bigger victory Monday morning.
In a video posted on social media by the team, Rivera was presented a poster of a burgundy-and-gold ribbon, which will be signed by everyone at the cancer center, to honor his perseverance. Then he walked to the end of the hall and rang the honorary silver bell to mark the end of his treatment.
After seven weeks of proton radiation and chemotherapy, Rivera is a bit slimmer and a bit weaker than he was in September. And although follow-up appointments and medical scans still await, Rivera said last week he is excited by the prospect of coaching the way he once did.
“Being out there and not being able to just get into it the way I normally would, that was hard for me,” he said last week. “ … It’s probably going to take three or four weeks after I get my last treatment because of the recovery period, but I really am looking forward to it.”
As Rivera reached a milestone in his recovery, his team reached an important marker in his first season as it celebrates a divisional win and looks forward to a bye week. After seven games, Washington is 2-5 and stands second in a wide-open race for the NFC East title.
After a rough start to the season, which included a surprising quarterback change and a five-game losing streak, Washington has seemed to gain its footing over the past few games and shown glimpses of what it can be in all three phases.
In Kyle Allen’s two full starts at quarterback, Washington’s offense has averaged 4.2 more points, 104 more total yards and 66 more rushing yards per game than it did in Weeks 1 through 5. It has also converted 56.7 percent of its third downs in the past two weeks, produced seven “big plays” (10-plus yards rushing or 20-plus yards passing) per game and reduced its rate of three-and-outs from 29 percent to 5.7 percent.
“I think Kyle did a great job,” offensive coordinator Scott Turner said Monday. “The big plays early in the game [against Dallas] were really great; I think they set the tone for what we wanted to do offensively. It’s really the way we wanted to play. . . . In the second half we were doing such a good job running the ball that we didn’t score as many points as maybe we’d like to, but we kept the ball away from their offense and moved it. He made a lot of really good decisions.”
On defense, Washington has allowed only 11.5 points per game (down from 28.4 in the first five games); held the New York Giants and Cowboys to an average of 191 total yards and 83.5 passing yards; averaged 3.5 sacks; and allowed three “big plays” per game — compared with 6.8 earlier in the season.
“Our preparation has been outstanding the last three weeks or so,” defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “They feel it. The players feel it. We’re building confidence because of the way we’re working at it. To me, when a group of men come in every day with great energy and a great focus and desire to improve and go out and put in the work, I think they should expect to improve. We are improving.”
Yet significant questions remain for Washington, from personnel to performance. The receiving corps is still depleted, although Steven Sims Jr. is eligible to return to practice after the bye. The secondary may be without strong safety and team captain Landon Collins after he suffered an ankle injury Sunday. The running game showed signs of life with 208 yards against the Cowboys, but it ranked only 25th through Sunday (and Dallas’s run defense is the worst in the league, allowing an average of 178.3 yards).
And while the quarterback play has stabilized with Allen, his long-term future — and that of 2019 first-round draft pick Dwayne Haskins — remains uncertain.
“I think it’s kind of like talking about things at halftime. We’re not waiting for the bye to make adjustments,” said Del Rio, who will lead the team’s meetings this week while Rivera recovers from his treatment. “We’re looking at ourselves all the time and evaluating all the time. I think you just have a chance to go a little deeper, a little deeper dive into things.”
In the meantime, Washington has turned to its head coach as an example — and a guide for more than football decisions.
“I think if Coach can come to work and push through what he’s dealing with, none of us have any excuses,” Turner said. “With that being said, we’ve got a lot of really good guys on this team and in this organization. You see that every single day, and that is a part of it, too. They want to get better and they want to work. It’s a great place to be around on a day-to-day basis.”