While Newton had been hurt for much of the previous two seasons, Rivera would have understood better than anyone how close Newton was to being strong again. Given what Dwayne Haskins had been as a rookie quarterback last season, given how far he had to go to be the leader Rivera needed to begin the rebuilding here, signing Newton would have made so much sense.
But Rivera must have seen something in Haskins that might not have been obvious to everyone else, something that made him ignore the wayward throws and the uncertainty of a rookie who looked far from ready to lead. He must have seen someone who reminded him of the quarterback who had arrived with him in Carolina in 2011, a young man who he believed would take his team to the playoffs. He must have seen his next Cam Newton.
Then, on Sunday, as highlights of Newton in New England Patriots blue kept dancing on the giant video boards that loomed behind FedEx Field’s end zones, Haskins played as big a role as anyone in Washington’s 27-17 season-opening victory over Philadelphia. It was not, by any statistical measure, a brilliant performance. Haskins completed just 17 of 31 passes for 178 yards, coincidentally matching the number of passing yards Alex Smith had in each of his final three victories as Washington’s quarterback back in 2018. He threw for one touchdown and no interceptions, just like Smith did in each of his last three wins.
In many ways, Haskins’s performance was very much like one of Smith’s — rugged and durable, without turnovers and filled with quick, simple completions and scrambles for first downs at just the right moment. It was a game won not with highlights — because there might not be one play Haskins made Sunday that begs to be shown on the postgame shows — but with the one thing everyone had questioned most about Haskins: leadership.
“It did validate [my decision],” Rivera said after the game. “But, again, this is a league of what have you done for me lately, so next week he’ll be judged again.”
Rivera didn’t smile, but it was clear he loved what he saw from Haskins on Sunday afternoon. He liked the way Haskins didn’t rattle when nothing went right for the game’s first 1½ quarters and Philadelphia built a 17-0 lead.
He said he liked the way Haskins “responded after the first quarter, taking what they gave” and “making plays when he had to.” Then he used a word he often uses when describing what he hopes this team will come to have as it builds this thing forward. He said Haskins showed “resilience.”
“I was proud of him,” Rivera added.
Back in the winter, Rivera challenged his quarterback to be the team’s most important player. It wasn’t as much of a physical demand as a mental one. He wanted Haskins to show he was someone other players could follow, the one they would believe in. At the time, Rivera must have assumed they would work on this together, with the quarterback stopping by the team’s facility for regular talks and bonding sessions that would run through offseason workouts. But then came the novel coronavirus, and all in-person contact stopped. For months, Rivera had to hope Haskins was growing into the man the coach envisioned. But he couldn’t be sure until training camp.
And while Haskins came to camp in excellent shape and instantly struck those teammates who hadn’t seen him in months as an adult who walked with certainty as opposed to a kid who looked overwhelmed by the NFL, no one could know until there was a test. No one could know until Washington was down 17-0 to the Eagles.
Just before halftime, Haskins led Washington on a touchdown drive following an interception that at least left everyone feeling as if they were still in the game. Then, at halftime, with Rivera out of the locker room getting an IV feed that the coach had planned with the team’s training staff, Haskins stepped into the middle of the room and started talking.
He told the team about its first game last year, against these same Eagles in Philadelphia, in which Washington led 20-7 at halftime only to fall apart in the second half and lose by five points. It was a defeat that sent the team spiraling into a 3-13 disaster and led to Rivera’s hiring two days after the season’s end.
“Find a way to win,” Haskins told them.
“Got everyone riled up,” Rivera said.
“Like a leader, he gave a speech,” cornerback Fabian Moreau said.
“I felt that we were in kind of a lull,” Haskins later said. “We were trying to do as much as we can, but I tried to find a way to motivate the guys in the second half.”
During training camp, there were days when Haskins didn’t look like the team’s future quarterback. His throws were too long or too short. But Rivera never seemed to mind much. Haskins was throwing the ball to the right place, the coach said. He was making the right reads. In the end, those right reads were the final pieces of evidence that encouraged Rivera to give his team to Haskins.
Then, on the first day, they both ignored the early bad passes and found a way to do something that hasn’t been done around here much lately. They won a game.