Ron Rivera Has the Washington Football Team Headed in the Right Direction, Despite Record

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NFL head coaches don’t often find consolation in defeat, but it’s a different story for Washington Football Team boss Ron Rivera. Sure, he’s seen his team lose back-to-back games against NFC East rivals, 27-17 to the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 15 and Boxing Day’s 56-14 drubbing at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys.

Every defeat stings, especially ones with dire consequences for Washington’s playoff hopes. Yet, Rivera ought to be proud of the way a patchwork group battled through a Covid outbreak and still showed fight on the road.

It’s the kind of silver lining that proves a coach has his franchise headed in the right direction.

Ron Rivera Good for Washington Football Team Despite Losses

Rivera in Washington

Losing to the Cowboys and Eagles means Washington has lost 19 games in just under two seasons on Rivera’s watch. It’s worth remembering he took the team to the NFC East title and the playoffs in 2020. Those things qualify as success in any year, but Washington still took a weak division with a meager 7-9 record.

For those keeping score at home, that’s 13 wins and pushing Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers all the way in the postseason. Those form the total of Rivera’s achievements with Washington. So why does it feel appropriate to be optimistic?

The main reason is Rivera has stayed strong through trying circumstances on and off the field. He took over a franchise in the process of ditching its name. His work this season has been conducted amid the backdrop of an ugly league-led probe into the working environment under controversial owner Dan Snyder.

Then there are the injuries. Lots of them. Few teams have lost more key players than Washington since Rivera took over almost two years ago.

His tenure began with doubts about the future of quarterback Alex Smith. The veteran was battling in vain to recover from a gruesome leg injury that had kept him out of football since 2018. Smith briefly made a comeback in 2020, but eventually succumbed to the injury and retired.

Injuries, Injuries, and More Injuries

Rivera shuffled through four quarterbacks during his first year in charge. Dwayne Haskins managed to cement his status as a draft bust, while Kyle Allen proved why he had only been a backup with the Carolina Panthers. Meanwhile, Smith proved tragically brittle before undrafted free agent Taylor Heinicke flashed glimpses of talent, notably during the playoff shootout with Brady.

Heinicke, like Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, is one of many players who have punched above their weight on Rivera’s watch:

Individual turnarounds like those are how you measure a coach’s ability to get the most out of what he has. So is the ability to coach up players to beat more talented opponents.

Yet, despite Heinicke’s improvement, there’s still been too much change in a short time at football’s most important position. Rivera hoped to stop the carousel, if only temporarily, by signing Ryan Fitzpatrick last offseason. Alas, fate had other ideas. Fitzpatrick went down with a hip injury during Week 1’s 20-16 defeat at home to the Los Angeles Chargers. The 39-year-old hasn’t played a down since.

Heinicke’s had the job, but his efforts haven’t been helped by the decimated supporting cast around him. This year’s top get in free agency, hybrid playmaker Curtis Samuel, has played in just four games this season, thanks to groin and hamstring injuries.

Samuel isn’t the only premium target Heinicke has had to do without. Tight end Logan Thomas, a former quarterback who proved a revelation in a different position a year ago, has landed on injured reserve with a knee problem.

Washington’s injury problems haven’t just been limited to the offense. Defensive end Chase Young, the second-overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft had his season cut short by a torn ACL.

Fight Against Eagles Gives Hope

So, if you’re keeping track, Rivera has lost his starting quarterback, two of his top receivers, and the stud pass-rusher from his defense. Somehow, though, Washington has stayed competitive and in the playoff conversation.

That’s a testament to coaching. Rivera has guided the team with a steady hand. He’s maintained continuity on both sides of the ball, despite an ever-changing cast of characters. Those things set the good coaches apart from the also-rans.

Nowhere was Rivera’s skill tested more than against the Eagles in Week 15. Washington took to the road with a roster ravaged by a Covid outbreak.

NBC Washington’s Ethan Cadeaux outlined the scale of the problem ahead of the game:

“A total of 26 players have been placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list since Dec. 8. Over half have been activated since, but Washington will be down five starters for Tuesday’s game, including quarterback Taylor Heinicke, All-Pro guard Brandon Scherff, and defensive backs Kamren Curl and Kendall Fuller.”

Those issues forced Rivera to pivot quickly at quarterback. The answer he came up with was Garrett Gilbert, a 30-year-old they signed off of the New England Patriots┬ápractice squad. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

The team Rivera took to Lincoln Financial Field shouldn’t have been able to compete. Not with an Eagles team enjoying a resurgence since head coach Nick Sirianni let his offense run the ball.

Instead, Washington jumped out to a 10-0 lead behind strong running and opportunistic defense. It couldn’t last, though, not with so many key players missing. The impact of those absences became obvious as the game wore on.

Specifically, Philly tight end Dallas Goedert gashing the defense with seven catches for 135 yards, production he wouldn’t have enjoyed if Rivera’s best matchup had been available, per ESPN’s John Keim:

Keim was right to point out the cost of not having Kamren Curl patrolling the secondary. Similarly, Washington’s offensive line missed its best player, right guard Brandon Scherff.

The Eagles steadily wore down a Scherff-less front. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox caused havoc along the interior.

Ryan Fowler of The Draft Network aptly summed up Scherff’s significance:

The coffers were just as barren in Dallas, where Rivera had to make do without a host of vital defensive players. Middle linebacker Cole Holcomb, the signal-caller of the unit, landed on the Covid list. The team’s best cornerback, William Jackson III, also missed out with injury. As did the beating heart of coordinator Jack Del Rio’s schemes, hybrid safety, Landon Collins.

Bill Belichick and Andy Reid couldn’t overcome losing this much star power. The best any competent sideline general should hope for in these circumstances is to stay competitive.

Too Much to Overcome

Rivera has ensured Washington stayed competitive. Although, defensive tackles Allen and Daron Payne misdirected that competitive ire when they got into it in Week 16:

Scrapping teammates are never a good look, especially when they were college teammates at Alabama. At least Payne and Allen showed they cared about Washington’s misfortune. Theirs is the kind of attitude recoveries are built upon.

Rivera is also aware of the cumulative toll of so much adversity on his team. He spoke about it after the debacle in Dallas:

Perhaps Rivera could adjust his schemes more often to help his makeshift team succeed. For instance, by doubling Goedert if nobody could match up as well as Curl. Or going max. protect against the Cowboys’ cadre of deadly pass-rushers.

The flip side of that argument is to imagine how effective Rivera’s system will be when he finally has the right players to execute it. It’s why Washington fans can feel the team is in safe hands, in a way they never felt under Jay Gruden or even Mike Shanahan.

Rivera has weathered distractions off the field and a spate of problems on it with Washington. None of those things have knocked him off course, even though there’ll be no return to the playoffs in Year 2. Washington remains well placed to win next season as long as ‘Riverboat Ron’ stays at the helm.

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