“I will tell you right now, we’re going to the Super Bowl, okay? But you’re not all going to come,” the head coach said in his first remote meeting with the Washington Football Team last spring. “If you want to be part of it, you have to make the commitment to us. And just so you understand, there are only two options with this commitment: You’re either in or you’re OUT. There will be no in-between.”
A lot of faux militaristic, spittle-flying haranguers say the same things as they pass through head coaching jobs in the NFL. What separates Rivera is that he’s actually got a record as a turnaround artist, twice now taking doormat teams to division titles. But if the members of the Washington football club are to make a real transformation from longtime losers to enduring winners, it won’t be because Rivera orders them to in a loud voice. It will be because, after all the years of managerial duplicity and double talk, they finally believe in somebody.
That’s the real trick, and it’s an ongoing project as Washington prepares for this week’s draft and Rivera enters the second stage of what he calls “sustainable culture change.” Last season’s 7-9 record and playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers completed a worthy season for a lot of reasons, none more so than the dauntless Alex Smith on his pinned-together leg. Whether Washington can improve on it and edge toward the winning side of the ledger will depend on whether his players find Rivera truly authentic or his voice with them wears out.
Establishing his credibility with them last season was no sure thing as the team started 1-5 and struggled to adjust to the new tempo he drove in practice. He shouted, “Play fast, play fast, play fast!” Sometimes he halted a drill because he didn’t like the mere sound of it. A football collision should have a full-speed popping noise, not sound like “pillow fights,” he says. Still, some guys wanted to do things their way. One day there was a murmur of dissent from a player as Rivera was trying to drill a technique. The player said, “This is how I did it last year.”
Rivera bowed up. The previous year, Washington was 3-13. “That really pissed me off more than anything else,” he says. “When we were flopping around, losing games, to have somebody say, ‘Well, you know, this is what I did last year.’ ”
He called the whole team in. “Are you f------ kidding me?” Rivera said. “You’re going to sit here and tell me what you did last year was good enough? Three and 13 was GOOD enough? No, it wasn’t. And I’ll tell you right now, if you’re going to keep telling me this is how you’re going to do it, you’re not going to play. … Yeah, it’s different. Yeah, it’s hard. You’re learning something. If you think this is good enough to play in this league, come see me. Because I will get RID of your a-- right now.”
He told them, “What you allow is what you tolerate.” If they allowed themselves even one bad habit, “now it becomes acceptable,” he said.
But if Rivera wasn’t willing to back it up with firm action, none of it meant a thing. He learned that from John Madden, a mentor early in Rivera’s head coaching career with the Carolina Panthers. “Ron, don’t ever forget you set the standard,” Madden told him. “And if you don’t hold everybody to the same standard, then you’re just talking into the wind.”
In fact, Rivera wasn’t holding everybody to the same standard. And they all knew it. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins, the personal first-round draft pick of owner Daniel Snyder, was a visible laggard. If there was one bad habit in the organization, the veterans knew, it was the devaluing of real effort while allowing a favored few to slide.
Rivera desperately wanted to give Haskins a fresh chance — “I loved the arm,” he says. “And he’s got a fast twitch about him when he sees the right thing.” At first Rivera figured all Haskins needed was some schooling. For 11 straight weeks, from training camp through the first month of the season, he gave Haskins every snap with the first team. “I was trying to create as much of an opportunity as possible to develop and grow,” Rivera says.
But after an initial burst of progress, Haskins reverted to a habitual casualness. “Look, everybody’s got a great arm in this league,” Rivera observes. “What separates them is the other part of it.”
While Rivera felt obliged to give Haskins every chance, it became plain how badly he was being outworked by the other quarterbacks. Particularly Smith, who was trying to prove his post-injury durability despite 17 surgeries and was another player Rivera didn’t know quite what to do with, to Smith’s ire. Reluctant to test Smith’s leg, Rivera felt most comfortable with the undrafted Kyle Allen, a dogged worker he calls “a very steady force. He’s a ‘hey, all right, whatever you want me to do, I’ll do.’ ”
Haskins was a huge complication in Rivera’s culture campaign because he made all of Rivera’s talk just wind. By the second game, Rivera was “concerned,” and by the third, when Haskins gave up three interceptions and a fumble in a loss to the Cleveland Browns, Rivera started asking hard questions of his staff.
“What type of commitment do we have? What is he doing? When is he getting in? When is he leaving? What extra things has he done? Who’s he been working with?”
Rivera would ask receivers, “Hey, have you been doing any extra work with him?” The reply was no. “You haven’t?”
When Rivera and his staff looked at the Cleveland game tape, he saw something that truly startled him. On a throw late in the game, Haskins went through his progression backward. His first look was to a receiver who was the last option on the play.
A week later he demoted Haskins to third string, and it was one of the two most important personnel moves Rivera would make all season. “I will say this: I think doing what I did helped me with the other guys,” Rivera reflects. “Because I showed them that, hey, guys, I’m not all-in on just one guy. I’m all-in on the team. … Making the decision not only had the impact of taking a young player and benching him, but it also told a group of guys, hey, look, if you’re not toeing the line, if you’re not doing your job and working the way you need to work and doing things the way we need them done, I’m moving on from you.”
The second-most-important player move was elevating unsung grinder Jeremy Reaves — and it was the complete opposite of the Haskins situation. Rivera had cut the 24-year-old safety from the roster of 53 in preseason, but Reaves was the kind of guy who did everything he was asked, in double-time. He had caught the coach’s eye with his energy. Rivera told him: “Look, you got our attention. This is a numbers game. Keep working, and I promise I’ll give you an opportunity.”
When Landon Collins went out with a season-ending Achilles’ injury, the football world expected Rivera to bring in big-name veteran Eric Reid to help with the playoff chase. But Rivera kept his promise to Reaves and promoted him from the practice squad. Reaves ended up the fifth-highest-rated safety in the league according to Pro Football Focus — and he told everyone in the building Rivera was a man of his word.
“I’d run through a brick wall for Coach. I’ll give Coach everything I got because he gave me an opportunity and he didn’t have to do that. He had a guy that he knew, that played in the system, that he was comfortable with, and he went with me,” Reaves told NBC Sports Washington at the end of the season. “So, like I said, I’ll give everything up for him. I’m super thankful, I’m super grateful for every opportunity that was given to me this year because it didn’t have to be like that. I tried to play balls to the wall for that man.”
As the season wore on, Rivera could see a change. There was no more resistance in practice — he didn’t have to push the pace, because the players were pushing it themselves. “You know, instead of watching a guy run by, they were actually physically putting themselves in position, or those that weren’t in position were getting on their horse and chasing after the play,” he says. “Now they start holding each other accountable and realizing what is and what isn’t acceptable — and that’s about as important as it gets.”
By then Rivera had a core group of believers, go-to guys he consulted, and the relationship became more collaborative than authoritative, which is what he really wanted. Late in the season, when Rivera asked how they thought practice was going, some of the vets told him the team could do with less contact. “Once you ask their opinion, then you’ve got to listen and be willing to act on it,” he says. “And now they own it.”
The next day, when the team took the practice field, Rivera declared it a helmet-free day. It was still up-tempo — “We’ve got to move crisp and sharp,” he told them. They did. And they upset the unbeaten Pittsburgh Steelers the next week. Rivera declared Wednesdays and Thursdays helmet-free for the duration. “They had learned how to practice with that tempo,” he says. “There was no need to line ‘em up and beat ‘em down.”
It all came to a halt with the 31-23 loss to Tampa Bay. But the season in retrospect — the losing streaks and winning streaks, Rivera’s bout with lymph-node cancer, four quarterback changes between the Haskins fail and Smith’s epic comeback — was a siege in which they never retreated and even advanced.
Now comes Stage 2 — and what Rivera knows about the second phase is that it can be a trap. He learned that when he took Carolina to the Super Bowl with a 15-1 record, then went 6-10 the next year. “Got the crap kicked out of us,” he says matter-of-factly. Again, he talked to Madden. “How do you sustain it?” he asked. Madden said, “Ron, you start from the beginning.”
“Excuse me?” Rivera said.
“You can’t show up and think you’re going to pick up right where you left off in January,” Madden told him. “You have to show up and start from the beginning. You have to be better at the details, be better at the little things. You can’t ever let anybody think that the little things don’t matter, that now you have all the answers. You don’t.”
So Washington will start from the beginning, with Rivera preaching “base fundamentals” in staff meetings last week. “Every year has its own personality,” Rivera says, his voice rising. “I’m as excited as anybody. I think we have a chance. But the biggest thing I have to do is make sure we start at the beginning and work our way up.”
And when he says it, you start to believe it a little.