Ron Rivera needs to do more in Washington than emulate the Carolina Panthers – The Washington Post

Two seasons into whatever this is, Ron Rivera has been exactly who you should’ve expected him to be. He’s the dependable leader, full of character and decency, that the Washington Football Team sought to clean up its everlasting mess. His current team plays similar to his Carolina Panthers teams, right down to the slow starts and identical 13-19 records through the first 32 games. He’s 60 now, but even after a cancer battle during his first season in Washington, he doesn’t look like he has aged much over the past decade.
Rivera is Rivera, every day. He’s so consistent you could set your watch to him. As he took command of a mercurial and rudderless Washington franchise, his steadiness often seemed remarkable. Mostly, though, it is simply a good, solid, fundamental approach to coaching.
But it’s also a concern. Can Rivera adapt to this situation? Can he modernize his approach as the game inevitably changes? If not, does he have the self-awareness to embrace the new ideas of others and marry their creativity with his classic style?
As his second season in Washington closes Sunday, Rivera must spend the offseason thinking about those questions. How he answers them — how willing he is to revise and stay fresh — figures to be the key to the next phase of his tenure running the Team To Be Named Feb. 2.
Rivera won’t receive extra credit for providing stability anymore. His basic competence won’t be able to temper any on-field concerns much longer. His hazy rebuilding plan is about to yield to the demand for clear, tangible progress.
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He knows the deal. He has been coaching for 25 years, including the past 11 as a head coach. He knows that, no matter how extensive the project, the rebuilding grace period lasts only two seasons. As this disappointing 6-10 campaign has made clear, it will take Washington much longer to arrange all the pieces to create an ideal, balanced roster. Even so, the conversation now shifts from asking for patience during the teardown to providing evidence that the construction is progressing.
Rivera won’t ignore the noise. Instead, he turned up his own volume.
When asked about next season, the coach said: “I know expectations will be high. I know people will say: ‘Well, it’s your third season. This is what happens in the third season.’ And, again, I get it. At the end of the day, we have some holes that we want to fill. We have some players we want to make sure are the right kind of guys that are going to be out on the football field. But that’s all part of the process I believe in.”
In pro sports, no one gets to create in solitude. Few get to operate in peace. Without a viable long-term starting quarterback, it’s no surprise Rivera’s time has begun with two straight losing seasons. The team was fortunate to finagle an NFC East title and playoff berth with a 7-9 record last season. It was a chance to accelerate the process, but a 2-6 start this season and then a late-season rash of injuries and covid-19 absences ruined that.
The autopsy of this letdown shouldn’t be limited to the need for a quarterback, blanket defensive regression, a young team’s immaturity and health misfortune. More than anything, this season crumbled because Washington failed in the draft and free agency last year. First-round pick Jamin Davis struggled mightily, and linebackers taken in the top 20 shouldn’t be slow-developing talents. Second-round tackle Sam Cosmi and fourth-round tight end John Bates were the two draft picks who showed the most promise, but Cosmi missed half the season because of injuries.
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The 2021 free agent class was a bigger disaster. Cornerback William Jackson III started slowly and improved, but he has not had the impact the team hoped for, and what’s worse, Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio didn’t play to his strengths consistently. Bothered by a bad groin injury, wide receiver Curtis Samuel was able to participate in just five games. Ryan Fitzpatrick, brought in to be the team’s stopgap starting quarterback, injured his hip in Week 1 and couldn’t play the rest of the season.
It would be understandable if Rivera and the organization brushed off all the injuries as bad luck and chose not to overreact to the challenges of developing rookies and integrating free agents during awkward pandemic times. But it would be foolish, especially going into Year 3, if they didn’t make adjustments. It has almost been a year since the team added Martin Mayhew as the general manager and Marty Hurney as an executive vice president to assist with Rivera’s vision for the team. And now it’s on the trio to lead a football operations staff that needs to have a transformative offseason.
Like most everyone, Rivera has hired coaches and executives who provide him with the kind of comfort, familiarity and chemistry that he prefers. There are a lot of longtime friends, co-workers and even family members. It’s no different than what any veteran coach, given the keys to an organization, would do. But to have sustained success and transcend Daniel Snyder’s lousy ownership track record, Rivera needs to make sure he has people to jibe with and challenge him. He needs to balance the tried and true with innovation. He needs to have the right feel for when to take chances. And here’s the most difficult part: Although he should be proud of many of the things he accomplished with the Panthers, he needs to abandon the idea of building Carolina 2.0.
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Every so often, Rivera floats into the past and starts romanticizing about his time in Charlotte. He will compare a current player to one of his old Carolina standouts. He will admire the Buffalo Bills, who are led by several Carolina disciples. He will try to use the Panthers to validate his current rebuilding effort.
“If it was possible to emulate everything that we did there, I would have,” Rivera said before his return to Carolina in November.
While he had plenty of successes during nine seasons in Charlotte, he did so with just three winning records. Carolina was inconsistent in ways that Cam Newton’s injury history can’t fully explain. Five of his nine Panther teams started seasons as poorly as his first two have in Washington.
The consistency of Rivera’s professional approach allows him to be a gifted motivator who inspires fight in his players. But his teams also crumble the same. Reliable Ron needs some new wrinkles this time around.
Recent NFL history is full of coaches who did their best work at their second jobs. Consider this batch of Super Bowl winners from the past quarter-century: Mike Shanahan, Dick Vermeil, Jon Gruden, Bill Belichick, Tony Dungy, Tom Coughlin, Gary Kubiak, Andy Reid, Bruce Arians. Several of them were chased out of their first jobs. All of them enjoyed career-defining success at NFL stop No. 2.
There are uninspired retreads, and there are brilliant revisionists. It’s hard to know which you are getting. The recycled flops are more abundant than the slow-developing geniuses.
Who is Rivera? If he only wishes to be who he has been — but with autonomy — he won’t be able to turn all this power into a triumphant second act. He’ll just become stubbornly consistent. He must adapt, and with the judgment phase of his tenure approaching, his personal evolution is now urgent.
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