“If I showed you the tape of our first practice and then what it looked like at the end of the year,” defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said in a recent phone conversation, "it’s the winning habits. And you started noticing that you’re not having to ask for it, but now they’re asking each other for it.”
And then it happened. Inside a FedEx Field without fans on the afternoon of Oct. 25, Washington racked up 200 rushing yards, totaled six sacks and looked like a team on the rise in a 22-point rout of the Dallas Cowboys. In the locker room after, second-year wide receiver Terry McLaurin gave an impromptu speech. “Enjoy this s--- right now,” he told them, because they finally had something to build on.
“We’ve set the standard,” he told reporters moments later. “We know what that looks like now.”
In many ways, the victory was the on-field embodiment of what Rivera had been trying to instill in his young team. Hired in January 2020 to resurrect a losing franchise and build what he calls “a sustainable winning culture,” Rivera had to overcome unexpected challenges — including his own cancer diagnosis — in leading Washington to a surprise playoff berth and an NFC East title with a 7-9 record.
But the improvement he saw in the team’s young roster and the way his players bought in to what he and the coaching staff had been preaching didn’t happen by chance, Rivera says. He approached Year 1 of the team’s rebuild methodically and intentionally, shaped by his playing days and previous coaching stops.
“To me, it’s doing things the right way,” Rivera told The Washington Post in a recent phone interview. “It’s setting a standard. I don’t want to have to blur the lines of what’s right and what’s wrong. I want to feel good about winning.”
His rebuild was modeled partly after the Buffalo Bills, whose four-year turnaround provided Washington a blueprint of sorts for an NFL culture change. The approach provides insight into the team’s personnel and coaching decisions of the past year and what Rivera and his staff will face moving forward into Year 2.
The Buffalo model
Throughout the season, Rivera peppered Buffalo General Manager Brandon Beane and Coach Sean McDermott with questions about their approach to rebuilding. The three men had succeeded together before. For six seasons with the Carolina Panthers — with Rivera as head coach, Beane as assistant GM and McDermott as defensive coordinator — they helped turn a team with the NFL’s worst record into a three-time division winner and conference champion.
“I asked Brandon and Sean, ‘When you guys came in, what was the idea?’ ” Rivera said. “It all starts with coming in and saying, 'Hey, this is what we want to accomplish, this is what we want to do, this is what we want to be,’ and then finding out who shares that same vision.”
The Bills ended a 17-year playoff drought in their first season with Beane and McDermott, barely making the postseason at 9-7, but they knew that they had to make significant changes to their roster. They had the support of owners Terry and Kim Pegula, who bought into the idea that a true rebuild would take years, allowing Beane and McDermott the time to evaluate their existing roster and coaching staff.
“Once you figure out who’s on the bus with you for that first season, set your standard, and whether it’s players, coaches, staff, don’t move off the standard for anything,” Beane said. “It’s more important than winning games. That’ll come.”
Beane then began to untangle the team’s salary cap issues and, in conjunction with McDermott, revamp the roster. They unloaded unwieldy contracts to create cap flexibility, altered the coaching staff, found depth and franchise cornerstones in the draft (most notably quarterback Josh Allen), signed free agents with untapped potential and then invested in their young quarterback with playmakers and protection up front.
The approach has been a formula for success: Buffalo advanced to the AFC championship game in January. Through it all, Beane said the emphasis has been on consistent messaging and finding players and coaches with a shared mind-set so “everybody is moving and pulling in one direction.”
“Sean uses this from a Pat Riley book that talks about ‘the disease of me,’ and it’s spot on: You start to have some success, and then the disease of me creeps in and it erodes, so you’re constantly fighting that as you’re building something to a winner,” Beane said. “ … Find people that are good at their jobs and have no egos.”
As it is for Buffalo, Washington’s notion of the “right fit” among players includes a heavy lean on character, combined with the right skills for the right role. It requires asking questions to gain a clear picture of a player’s competitive drive, leadership, work ethic and so on. During interviews with draft prospects, Rivera will use game film not only to test a player’s knowledge of the game but also his accountability. If the tape shows the player was at fault on a play, did he deflect blame when explaining what happened? Or did he own it?
Washington’s roster last season was formed with many of the same ideals that Buffalo had. This meant prioritizing building through the draft while finding some less-heralded free agents, such as tight end Logan Thomas and running back J.D. McKissic, to fill key roles. They spent bigger to add a defensive leader in cornerback Kendall Fuller and moved on from veterans such as Trent Williams and Adrian Peterson who they believed didn’t fit or were impeding the growth of young talent.
“You just want guys that are going to battle,” offensive coordinator Scott Turner said. “Week in, week out you’re going to get everything you have from those guys. You can rely on them to play to their ability but also bring the effort and intensity necessary to get through a 16-week season. Then the other thing is just guys that are team-first.”
Guys such as second overall pick Chase Young, who was voted a captain as a rookie last year, and safety Kam Curl, a seventh-round pick who started 11 games and emerged as a potential staple of the defense.
“He came in and you could tell … his character, his study habits,” assistant defensive backs coach Richard Rodgers said of Curl. “Some of these guys just have it in them. They want to be good. They want to be the best at what they’re doing. … It’s a lot easier when you have somebody who is self-motivated and willing to take all the coaching.”
‘They knew I was paying attention’
In his first team meeting, held via Zoom, Rivera laid out his vision for Washington’s culture. What Thomas remembers is how brief the meeting was, especially in comparison to the long-winded team meetings he experienced in Detroit.
“He just said, ‘These are the things that I believe in,’ ” Thomas recalled. “ ‘The attitude, the preparation, the effort will take us everywhere we want to go,’ and ‘the ball is in our court of how good we want to be.’ ”
Washington’s coaching staff and revamped athletic training staff includes more than a dozen people from Carolina, largely because of an established trust with Rivera. They know and share his vision. On the surface, Rivera’s myriad sayings and affirmations can seem similar to many other coaches’, but his leadership style is also unusual, a dichotomy of regimented and compassionate, molded by his upbringing in a military family and by his playing days as a linebacker.
Rivera has refined his approach based on the influence of coaches he deems mentors and players he has coached, as well as his reading of teaching books and Winston Churchill. He also places a premium on in-person contact. During practice, Rivera often speaks with groups of players, and before games he fist-bumps — or elbow-bumps — every one of them.
“He listens to us as players as a collective group when we see things that we want to do,” offensive tackle Morgan Moses said during the season. “As a team, we move together. There’s no decision that he makes and just blatantly makes it and doesn’t include us in it.”
With few chances to interact with players in person because of the NFL’s coronavirus protocols, Rivera had to get creative to maintain relationships with players last year. So he would regularly bounce in and out of Zoom video conferences and text players during their positional meetings.
“If I see somebody nodding off, I’ll say: ‘What, did you get in late last night? Didn’t get enough sleep?’ ’’ Rivera said. “The first time I did it, I texted everybody in that meeting. . . . From that point on, I would text one or two guys per meeting just so they knew I was paying attention.”
Rivera also had work to do in breaking habits used by returning veterans. “Play fast” was a common refrain throughout training camp, and when players didn’t practice with gamelike speed or effort, the coach let it be known.
During the season, when Rivera started to see his team playing at the level he wanted to see from them in terms of effort and competitiveness, he said it weighed into his decision to bench second-year starting quarterback Dwayne Haskins after four games.
“Our guys, I kind of got the sense they felt, ‘Man, we could have won that game [in Week 4 against the Baltimore Ravens], that we can win,’ ” Rivera said. “They played hard to the very end. … I thought, ‘You know what? I think they’re getting it. I think they understand that this is about us.’ … I felt by making the change at quarterback I was showing the guys I’m willing to take this shot for your guys’ sake.”
Some of Rivera’s in-game decisions were just as calculated. In Washington’s first meeting with the Giants, Rivera decided to go for a two-point conversion and the win after his team closed New York’s lead to one point in the final minute. The play failed, but Rivera went home without regret.
“The only way to learn to win is to play to win,” he said afterward. “That’s what I want those guys to understand. That’s the mentality.”
‘We still have more things we have to do’
In normal years, Rivera and his wife, Stephanie, would host groups of players and their wives for dinner. After eating, Stephanie would have dessert with the wives in one room while Rivera held court with the players for a “debriefing.”
“It’s what the military fighter pilots do after every mission,” Rivera said. “They literally take their ranks off of their uniforms and put them in the middle of this round table and they sit there and they have a forum and discuss what just happened. It’s a chance to be brutally honest.”
Back in 2013, when they started hosting the dinners with Carolina — something he hopes to resume in the future — players rattled off all of the things that were wrong, from the team’s meeting schedule to an assistant’s coaching style. It was then that Rivera realized he needed to be more visible to players, so he moved his second-floor office downstairs near the locker room.
“One of the pieces of advice I got my first time being a head coach was from (Pittsburgh Steelers Coach) Mike Tomlin,” Rivera said. “He said: ‘Listen. Make yourself available to people. Walk through the building. Talk to everybody. They’re going to tell you. They’re going to show you who they are eventually, and then you make your decisions off of that.’”
Rivera will have some big decisions to make in the coming months. In the days since Washington’s playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Rivera has set about revamping the team’s front office, including adding a pair of experienced former GMs in Martin Mayhew and Marty Hurney and allowing former top scouting executive Kyle Smith to leave for the Atlanta Falcons. Rivera maintains final say over the team’s personnel decisions, but he has said he plans to take a collaborative approach. Washington is also in the midst of overhauling its in-house systems to create a more comprehensive player evaluation database.
In the second year of the Bills’ rebuild, they drafted their franchise quarterback in Allen. Washington faces a similar quandary in Year 2 of its rebuild under Rivera. Even though Alex Smith went 5-1 as a starter last season in his remarkable comeback from a severe leg injury, it’s unclear whether the team will bring him back. It made only a minor financial commitment to Taylor Heinicke and may bring back Kyle Allen on a minimal salary. But it showed its willingness to try for a big move by making a competitive trade offer for Matthew Stafford before he was dealt to the Los Angeles Rams.
With free agency weeks away and the draft to follow, Washington’s options may soon expand. But filling that position could prove difficult, and Rivera knows that finding a solution at quarterback is imperative to changing the culture in Washington. Just look at Buffalo.
“Even though in their first year they went to the playoffs, they knew they still weren’t done,” Rivera said of Beane and McDermott. “They knew they still had more things they have to do. So that’s where we are. We still have more things we have to do.”