The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The bye week let Washington catch its breath. Now Ron Rivera wants to see growth.

Washington Coach Ron Rivera's team was 2-6 last season, too, before closing with a 5-3 rush that yielded the NFC East title. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
6 min

Before the Washington Football Team’s bye week, Coach Ron Rivera jotted down a list of things he and his assistants planned to review and change, if warranted. His team was 2-6, the same record it held after eight games last year, but unlike the team on the rise in 2020, Washington has seen a progressive drop in its play and soon begins a grueling stretch to close the season.

So during the team’s week for rest and reevaluation, Rivera began to break down the underperforming defense and its issues on third down. He dived into the offense’s problems in the red zone and its struggles on second down. And he met with his assistants to see if they were on the same page.

“That’s the thing that I appreciated — looking at these things and really seeing where everybody is in terms of how we feel about our football team with what we do,” Rivera said Monday. “Now it’s a matter of taking those things and making sure we’re implementing them and making sure we’re following them and doing all the little things we talked about. And we have to hold ourselves accountable to what we said.”

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Since 2011, when he took over the Carolina Panthers, Rivera’s teams have generally been second-half players, posting a 53-40 record (for a .570 winning percentage) from Week 8 on. In his teams’ first seven games of the season, Rivera is 32-38-1 (.458).

Last year, Washington experienced a turnaround not long after its Week 8 bye, losing two close games before embarking on a four-game winning streak and ultimately claiming the NFC East title in Week 17 to clinch a playoff berth at 7-9.

This year, Washington has been inundated with injuries to key players — including starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was placed on injured reserve with a partially dislocated hip, as well as top tight end Logan Thomas (hamstring), more than half of its offensive line, three of its top five wide receivers and one of its high-priced defensive backs.

Washington hopes to get Thomas back from injury soon, but his status for Sunday, when Washington hosts the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will depend on his progress.

“Today was really the day to see where he is, see how he reacts tomorrow, and then we’ll go from there,” Rivera said. “That was the plan all along going into last week. ... Today they were going to put a whole bunch on him and see how he reacts tomorrow. Then we’ll come back and see if he’s ready for it, and if he is, then he’ll practice on Wednesday.”

Cornerback William Jackson III, who missed the past two games with a knee injury, is in a similar situation. Rivera said Jackson had been dealing with the injury in training camp but it recently flared up and, after he tried to play through it, became too problematic.

Right tackle Sam Cosmi (ankle) and right guard Brandon Scherff (knee) practiced Monday, as did wide receiver Dyami Brown (knee). But top free agent signing Curtis Samuel remained sidelined with a groin injury that has been holding back the wide receiver since May. He was joined by defensive end Montez Sweat, who moved onto the long list of injured players last week with a fractured jaw suffered in the Week 8 loss at Denver. In that game, Washington also lost center Chase Roullier for the season with a fractured fibula, which he is expected to have surgically repaired Tuesday, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

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But with the offense recently flailing in the red zone and the defense ranking as the league’s worst in passing yards allowed per game and third down conversions, Rivera knows his team’s problems run much deeper than the injury report.

And with Sweat out an estimated four to six weeks, even more pressure will fall on defensive end Chase Young, the No. 2 pick in 2020 whose production has dropped in his second season. In a recent interview with the team’s website, Rivera said he “would like to see more” out of Young and noted Young often cuts inside to try to make a play and loses out on the chance to record a sack.

Rivera said he met with Young one-on-one recently.

“There’s a lot of pressure on him now with Montez out, and I wanted to just talk to him about it and make sure he understands that he doesn’t have to do something extraordinary,” Rivera said. “... I don’t want him to come in and think that every play has got to be great. Every play has just got to be the play that he’s supposed to be. And he has that skill set and the ability to do it. The biggest thing, as I said, is you want to see him continue to play a little more disciplined and not worry about trying to make so many plays. Let the plays come to him and just continue to work at it, and he’ll be fine.”

Despite a disappointing first half, Rivera said he remains optimistic this team can reverse course and reach its potential. But doing so won’t be easy over its final nine games, when it is in line to face star quarterbacks Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Derek Carr before playing five consecutive divisional games to finish the season.

His team’s status, Rivera said, is tied largely to an issue he noticed in the offseason and reiterated before the year began: maturity. But as he learned over the years — especially last season — one big win can spark a resurgence.

“Just because you take a step backward doesn’t mean you’re not learning and growing,” he said. “This has been tough, I agree. It’s about winning, and there were high expectations. And I know I repeat myself, but I did talk about maturity — this is the result, in my opinion, of some of us not being able to handle certain situations and circumstances. When it comes to maturity, what you’re supposed to do becomes what you want to do. That’s when you know these guys are learning and growing.

“And so I try to observe, I try to watch, I try to pay attention and how I draw my conclusions on where I think we are and where I think we can be. I’m not going to waver. I’m going to stick to the plan. ... Not at any point did I think this was going to be [we] won and everything’s fine. There’s a lot for us to do, and we’re still working on things.”

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