The hammering on Rivera will commence because at the end of a winnable game, he refused to play safe, the easiest kind of decision to pick apart. In fact, the calculation to leave the Washington Football Team’s offense on the field and go for two against the New York Giants, instead of taking the extra point for a tie and overtime, was defensible. Just one more big play would have punched the entire NFC East in the mouth. Rivera was trying to show his club what kind of outfit he wants it to be. For lack of a better term, the call was a vision quest. “The only way you learn to win is to play to win,” he said.
Instead, reality kicked in. Kyle Allen threw a hesitant, oscillating spinner incomplete under pressure, and Riverboat Ron effectively threw himself to the wolves, with the team at 1-5 after a 20-19 loss.
Still, there was much to admire in it. An outfit that has been all over the place finally found itself in the last quarter despite a calamitous strip-sack fumble by Allen that literally handed the Giants six points. The defense made a big stop when it most counted. And Allen bounced back to connect on 8 of 10 passes on that final 75-yard scoring drive. Guys showed all kinds of determination in those last two minutes. Isaiah Wright somehow hung on to the ball despite a dead arm. Allen made two cool third-down conversions with driving passes. And then there was that beautiful, swanning 22-yard scoring catch by Cam Sims.
After all of that, the safe and comfortable thing would have been to kick the extra point and go to overtime. No one could have possibly blamed Rivera for that. Instead, Rivera put himself and the entire offense on the spot — and opened himself up to all those whose toughest decision of the day was no more testing than what kind of pizza to order. In 2018 and 2019, according to data analysts at overthecap.com, two-point attempts were successful 49.4 percent of the time. So Rivera had almost a break-even chance of winning. As bitterly disappointing as the result was, the decision had an odd kind of credibility.
“He has confidence in his players,” tight end Logan Thomas said. “He tells us every day how much he believes in us — and he backs it with his actions.”
A good NFL coach makes literally hundreds of decisions on a Sunday that work so well no one really notices them. Anyone who has been in the league for as long as Rivera has will also have hundreds of calls they would like to have back. As analyst and former coach Tony Dungy recently reflected, “You’re going to have so many of those that all you would ever think about, if you let that creep in, is second-guessing yourself.” The solid leaders and longest survivors in this league are comfortable in their overall thought process and philosophy, and they don’t torment themselves over single outcomes.
Rivera has now committed himself to not one but two nervy, tough calls in these past couple of weeks. His benching of Dwayne Haskins, at peril of displeasing owner Daniel Snyder, has a similar go-for-brokeness. Haskins, a former first-round draft pick, is dynamic but too juvenile, while Allen, a third-year undrafted free agent, has palpably less talent but more maturity and recognition. It’s the kind of choice that can doom a coach, but that’s a chance Rivera can clearly live with.
Washington is obviously still not fully baked, and that state of affairs may exist for the rest of this strange season. The transition to a new staff and a roster rebuild are always matters of extreme patience, but never more so than in a pandemic. Zoom calls, remote learning, virtual meetings, truncated camps and practices — how was anybody supposed to fully coalesce in those conditions? More than a third of the way through the season, one thing is apparent: Teams with good coach-quarterback partnerships have significant advantages. From that standpoint, Rivera’s choices to go with Allen, whom he signed with Carolina, and to stay with him, make sense.
Yes, there are the turnovers and the final deflating play, but there were encouraging signs of growth within the game, too. Washington had four scoring drives of 70 or more yards, long sustained efforts of 11, 13, 14 and 10 plays. One of those possessions kept it in the game just before halftime, and one of them damn near won the thing near the end. “That gives us an opportunity,” Rivera said. The implication was clear: At least we had a chance. And that made it worth taking that final chance.
“I want to win football games,” he said. “I don’t care if this is my first year. I don’t care if we have a group of young guys that have to learn. We’re trying to teach them, we’re going to teach them, and they’re going to learn how to win, and at the end of the day that’s what we’re here for.”