The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ron Rivera says change won’t happen overnight. He’s 1,006 nights in.

Ron Rivera's Commanders fell to 1-3 with Sunday's loss to the Dallas Cowboys. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The reason Ron Rivera can sound so casual and relaxed after a never-really-in-doubt 25-10 handling at the hands of a division rival — as Rivera did Sunday in saying, “I think there are some really positive things that can be taken from what happened out there” against the Dallas Cowboys and backup quarterback Cooper Rush — is that he has been here before. And before that. And before that.

Rivera is in his 12th season as an NFL head coach. His Washington Commanders are 1-3 and facing more questions than a week’s worth of “Jeopardy!” contestants can spit back at the host. A straw poll would show him at his low ebb in public approval. So he can draw on his past. He must draw on his past. You know why? His teams have been 1-3 to start a season five previous times. That doesn’t count the other fragile seasons when they were 0-2 or 2-6 or 3-8-1.

This is a pattern, and there are patterns within it, and they all lead to some serious concern about whether Rivera has the ability — as an identifier of talent, a collector of personnel, a motivator of men and a game strategist, all hats he wears — to take this 1-3 outfit and make it into something better. Not just this week against Tennessee, but in 2023 and beyond.

At least by Monday, he seemed to sense the — how to put it? — outright disgust in certain segments of what remains of the fan base.

“I understand everybody’s frustration, especially how proud this organization is,” Rivera said during his day-after-the-game video call with reporters. “S---, this organization’s got five championships. Are you f---ing kidding me? I get it. I understand how important it is to win. Okay?

“But I got to be realistic with what we have and what we’re going to do. Now, some of it we can improve on as coaches and get better at. We have to. There is a sense of urgency that these things have to happen. But they’re not going to happen until everything is in place and is ready to happen.”

Facing problems big and small, Commanders are doomed by their own mistakes

Rivera reiterated Monday that “it’s not going to happen overnight.” Well, when he said that, it had been 1,006 nights since he was hired. There has been time to trend in the right direction. His team is not.

Some context, not just from the Dallas game, but how this looks and feels on a week-to-week basis: The Commanders never trailed the Cowboys by 20 or more points. Remarkably, that’s a measure of progress. They were down a combined 46-0 to Detroit and Philadelphia the previous two weeks. In fact, as my colleagues Scott Allen and Neil Greenberg pointed out last week, Rivera’s Washington teams have trailed at least 20-0 seven times in his 37 games here.

To be clear what that means: Roughly once every five times out, Washington finds itself down three touchdowns to start the game. Since 2020, that’s more than any other team in the league. Washington has allowed the opponent to score first 26 times in Rivera’s 37 games. It has trailed at halftime in 23 of those 37 games.

The Commanders chase the game and chase the season. It’s a hard way to live. It’s an impossible way to thrive. It’s admirable that Rivera gets his teams to stick with it. It’s inexcusable that it keeps happening.

In the midst of it all, Rivera is carrying a crystal tea set on a greased tightrope — trying to balance the idea that his team can make a significant step in his third year while simultaneously cautioning about what’s realistic given various injuries and scheduling quirks. But whatever the surrounding circumstances, the reality is ugly — the losses, sure, but the way they play out as well.

In four games, the Commanders have been outscored by 34 points, worst in the NFL. They average 4.6 yards per play, worst in the NFL. They score on 21.6 percent of their drives, worst in the NFL. Carson Wentz, Rivera’s handpicked choice at quarterback — which, really? — has been sacked 17 times, more than anyone else in the league, and thrown five interceptions, tied for second most in the league. The Commanders have responded by forcing one turnover, fewest in the league.

“I’ve said it before,” Rivera said Monday. “Figures lie, and liars figure.”

Yeah, well, count me as a liar doing some figuring over here then. Those numbers are truthful. They are meaningful statistics used to outline how bad this is. The Commanders are 1-3. The rest of the NFC East is 10-2. Stay the course?

Speaking of the neighborhood: The Eagles went from 4-11-1 in Rivera’s first season in Washington to 9-8 a year ago under a new coach to 4-0 and perhaps the NFC’s sturdiest team right now. The Giants are 3-1 and at least temporarily revitalized under new coach Brian Daboll. The Cowboys went from 6-10 in Mike McCarthy’s first season of 2020 to 12-5 and a division title last year to 3-1 despite playing three games without quarterback Dak Prescott this fall. Yet to hear Rivera tell it, an injury to starting center Chase Roullier has sabotaged Washington’s season.

No team digs a 20-point hole like the Commanders under Ron Rivera

When Rivera arrived here, his appealing traits were so easily and almost inevitably highlighted because of what the franchise needed at the time, which was any modicum of decency and professionalism. He has brought those. In his eight full seasons with Carolina, his teams gained four playoff berths, reached the Super Bowl with a dynamo of a 15-1 squad and won at least 11 games three times — something Washington hasn’t done since (ahem) Joe Gibbs stalked the sideline the first time around.

Rivera also had no abject disasters. He never won fewer than six games in a full season, never let a slow start slide into a team that quit. We have seen that here, and it’s not pretty. So this, in so many ways, was a keep-it-between-the-ditches hire.

In the nooks and crannies around all that buttery goodness is a lot of, well, blah. Total winning seasons in his 11 previous campaigns: three. Record and winning percentage in Washington: 15-22 for .405. Jay Gruden, the man Rivera was hired to replace, had a .418 winning percentage — and was fired five games into his sixth season.

So excuse us if, by now, little things that Rivera does or doesn’t do grow tiresome or even maddening. In the fourth quarter Sunday, Wentz was — surprise — sacked to bring up fourth and 15. The Commanders trailed 22-10. Two scores were needed, so seconds mattered. Yet nearly 35 of them ticked off the clock before Rivera called a timeout with 8:02 remaining.

The difference in the game? No. Wentz threw incomplete on the next play anyway. A reason people sit around and talk about why they can’t muster confidence in the staff or the direction? Absolutely.

“I like to believe I’m responsible, and I understand enough to know, though, that the fans are going to be frustrated,” Rivera said. “I don’t doubt that. I really don’t. I understand the history of what’s gone on here for a while, and we’re trying to change that.”

There are not day-to-day and week-to-week off-field embarrassments, and that’s important. But they have not changed the results on the field, and that’s important, too. Ron Rivera is having another slow start in a career littered with them. It makes you wonder: When will it stop?