The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ron Rivera’s tenure has been an off-field maelstrom. Now the disarray is on the field.

Washington Football Team Coach Ron Rivera argues a call during Sunday’s loss to the New Orleans Saints. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post) (The Washington Post)

This feels like a potential pivot point in Ron Rivera’s tenure as coach of the Washington Football Team, which is just 22 games old. Not because his group lost to the New Orleans Saints in painstaking fashion Sunday, and not because the talented but desperate Kansas City Chiefs await this Sunday, and not because he’s coaching for his job. Rather, because for the first time since he arrived in January 2020, his on- and off-the-field decision-making is under real scrutiny. He is on his heels, not the balls of his feet, and it’s palpable.

“Guys, guys, guys, guys, guys, guys, guys,” Rivera said Monday during a Zoom call with reporters, when he faced questions about whether he would make changes on the coaching staff (hello, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio) or overhaul his scheme. It’s not the first time he has answered that way. It sure doesn’t feel like the last.

This is a new tenor for a new time. When Rivera got here, the task was both enormous and simple: Bring a level of professionalism and dignity to an organization that lacked both. The task now: Take a team, and particularly a defense, that was already good and make it dominant.

That it’s more dormant than dominant brings questions, because there are paths to a 2-3 record that would be understandable. What’s happening — a defense that gives up the sixth-most yards and the second-most points in the NFL — is not among those understandable paths.

Perspective: Washington doesn’t just lack a dominant defense. It lacks an identity.

“We had two plays that if you could take back, it’s a different conversation,” Rivera said, before quickly adding: “But you can’t, which I get. But I’m not going to damn the rest of it.”

Okay, well, not to rehash here, but the two plays against the Saints were obvious — a third-down, 72-yard touchdown pass on which his defensive backfield wasn’t prepared for New Orleans’s quick snap and a 49-yard last-play-of-the-half heave on which his defense was more focused on preventing a short gain to set up a field goal than the prayer that resulted in a touchdown.

Oh, and that latter play involved six defenders near the ball who — I still can’t believe this — did not jump.

Rivera has been doing this long enough that, given a night to digest it, he has to know how his answer sounds. It’s not just that the two plays in question can’t be changed. It’s that the two plays in question are indicative of what this team allows the opposition.

“Those are the things you have to learn to eliminate, and when you have the chance, you have to make the plays. Okay?” he said. “And unfortunately, we haven’t been that consistent doing it. That’s why we’re 2-3. I get that part.

“But again, okay, so we’re going to start changing people? Well, who else am I going to go to? These are the guys that we’ve got to train and teach and go with. Okay? You just can’t pull guys and bring guys in without consequences. … So you either stick with what you got and continue to teach, train and coach, okay? And eventually, you will see the improvement. Okay? That’s where I am with this.”

That can’t be the answer. It just can’t be. The job description involved changing the football culture, and part of changing the culture isn’t going to the “If we had just stopped their two backbreaking touchdown passes, we would’ve won” well. That’s tired.

If, in the meeting room, Rivera wants to say to his players, “Guys, we’re close, and if you could just concentrate and play sound for 56 defensive snaps instead of 54 or 52 or whatever, we’re going to get better results — and fast,” then that’s fine. But in public, the discourse has to be: “Those are the plays that lose football games, and because we can’t make them consistently, we are losing more than we win. That has to change, and I’m going to make sure it does.”

After WFT defense suffers another letdown, Ron Rivera says it isn’t time for big changes

In so many ways, Rivera’s tenure with Washington has been defined by how he has handled the endless external issues that are baked-in when working in Ashburn. The rehashed list is both staggering in its sweep and part of life in Loudoun County: an initial offseason shut down by the pandemic, the societal uproar that led to the changing of the team’s name, Rivera’s cancer diagnosis, Dwayne Haskins’s on- and off-the-field flameout that continued the franchise’s eternal instability at quarterback, an unexpected division title that came with a losing record and a sexual harassment scandal that led to sweeping personnel changes in the front office and the de facto suspension of the owner.

Through most of that upheaval, Rivera stood stalwart, focusing, as he has said, on what’s important, not what’s interesting. He was untouched by any of it. The football almost seemed secondary, which can feel typical around here. It was just nice to have confidence that there wouldn’t be a daily embarrassment committed by the forward-facing leadership.

Now, Rivera’s handpicked head athletic trainer — part of the flotilla he brought with him from Carolina — is under investigation by the DEA. That’s not an incident isolated to a bygone era of the Washington Football Team. That’s a character who was hired and endorsed by Rivera. It bears watching.

As does the football. Because in the end, the football matters most. It matters that the defense is playing fundamentally worse than it did a year ago, that there is regression rather than progress. It matters that Rivera is in charge of the entire football operation and the player he chose with the 19th pick in the draft — linebacker Jamin Davis — was not deemed worthy of more than 13 snaps Sunday, even with Jon Bostic on injured reserve. It matters that while 53 defensive snaps yielded just 248 New Orleans yards Sunday, the other two snaps coughed up 121 yards — which is losing football.

The Chiefs game won’t damn or save Rivera’s coaching stint here. But it will help shape it. He heads into it committed to the people he has and the manner he prepares them — which is supposed to yield different results. The focus, for once in Washington, isn’t on some cockamamie, far-flung distraction. It’s on the football. And the football has to be better.

What to read about the Washington Commanders

Exclusive: An employee of Washington’s NFL team accused Commanders owner Daniel Snyder of asking for sex, groping her and attempting to remove her clothes, according to legal correspondence obtained by The Post. A team investigation concluded the woman was lying in an attempt to extort Snyder.

Capitol Hill: Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, announced that the committee intends to issue a subpoena to compel the testimony of Snyder.

Kevin B. Blackistone: If NFL players care about social justice, why haven’t they rebuked the Commanders’ defensive coordinator?

Penalized: The NFL fined Commanders head coach Ron Rivera $100,000 and docked the team two OTA practices in 2023 for excessive hitting during their offseason program this year, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

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