The speeches always were followed with a not-too-gentle warning.
“You don’t want to lose the focus.”
Now, three decades later, Rivera finds himself at an interesting place, with his Washington Football Team having won four straight games to become the favorite to win the NFC East. And now he must balance the caution of Ditka with a desire to keep pushing his players to believe that, after a 2-7 start, they are indeed good enough to make it to the postseason.
It’s a complicated dance for any coach of a new winner. Rivera was a rookie on the 1984 Bears when Ditka found his first great success in Chicago, winning what was then the NFC Central at 10-6, just two years after a three-victory season. He saw how Ditka managed the outrageous expectations that came with the sudden success, manipulating them through the following season’s Super Bowl run with what many consider to be one of the NFL’s most dominant defenses.
Those Bears were so good and so beloved, booming to global fame with their own music video, “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” it was hard for them not to become enchanted with the bombast of attention. In many ways, Ditka’s brilliance was in squelching the euphoria just enough to win six division titles in the nine years Rivera played for him.
But how does Rivera do the same for a franchise that has been mired in chaos and despair for so long that a four-game winning streak almost feels like an invitation for a parade?
“You are relevant,” he shouted to his players in the locker room after their victory over San Francisco on Sunday. He was talking about a team that had largely been ignored, mentioned only in debates about which teams will have high enough picks to take a top quarterback in April’s draft. And yet he might as well have been talking about the entire franchise, which had become an afterthought in its own market — once an unthinkable prospect.
Almost out of nowhere, Washington is the league’s best 6-7 team, with announcers gushing over the size and power of its defense.
“They’re the best defense in football,” NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger marveled in a video following Sunday’s game. “They just physically whip you. It’s not one guy. It’s not two guys. It’s the whole damn team. . . . They’re just throwing people around.”
And how does Rivera dare try to manage that? Heeding Ditka, who would whisper, “they put you on that pedestal and then they knock you down,” is a tricky task.
In three months, he has gotten a bunch of no-names on a team without a name to make a name for themselves — and yet he now has to keep that team from thinking it’s too good while at the same time trying to make it believe it is good enough.
Last week, just before the team’s first practice after the Monday night victory over the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers, Rivera called the players together. He wanted to talk about another Super Bowl-winning coach: John Madden, who has become a mentor of his. One of the best pieces of advice Madden gave Rivera was to realize that teams can never pick up where they were in the days after a big win. They have to start all over again. That way, the little details don’t ever get lost.
Rivera had been worried about a “hangover” following Pittsburgh and wanted to be sure to drive it away.
“We’re trying to get these guys past that and get them to understand that what we did, how we played Monday night, doesn’t guarantee we’re going to do it again this week,” he said later that day.
Then, on Sunday, against San Francisco in a weird road game played in Arizona, Washington’s defense was better than it had even been in Pittsburgh. And there was no way even Rivera could mute that.
“Understand this, nobody — and I promise you, nobody — wants to play us,” he said in that locker room speech.
Three games remain on Washington’s schedule, and the stakes for the postseason seem clear. Win two of those and it’s all but certain Washington takes the NFC East. Given all that has happened here the past few years, it would be hard for any coach not to want to celebrate that. For months, Rivera’s biggest challenge was getting his team to understand it could be in this position. Now the biggest test of his first season in Washington will be to juggle his “you are relevant” with Ditka’s “you don’t want to lose the focus.”
His ability to do that could say everything about how far into January this crazy, unexpected Washington Football Team season will go.
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