- The Washington Times - Monday, December 14, 2020

Fresh off another victory, this time a 23-15 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Ron Rivera gathered his players in the locker room for a post-game speech. Throughout the Washington’s coach message, his voice rose as he told them they were now relevant, they earned the right to be in first place of the NFC East and that they had to act like professionals.

Then, he hammered his main point home: “Understand this,” he said. “Nobody — and I promise you, nobody — wants to play us.”

Remarkably, it didn’t feel like an exaggeration. Winners of four straight, Washington (6-7) is suddenly one of the hottest teams in the NFL — built on an elite defense, enough talent on offense and a resolve that has helped overcome obstacle after obstacle.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Rivera said he gave the speech because he wanted his players to understand “they’re now relevant” in the NFL landscape. Washington is not only in control of their division race, but the team is starting to build a foundation that has people paying attention.

“I believe they’re part of the conversation right now,” Rivera said. “They’ve done some good things and deserve to be part of the conversation.”

That conversation can be heard on national sports shows with talking heads marveling over Washington’s rise. On ESPN’s “Get Up” morning show, former coach Rex Ryan called the team’s defensive line the best unit in the NFC East. Former safety Ryan Clark enthusiastically said rookie Chase Young was “like if Derrick Henry and ‘The Predator’ went into the lab,” referring to the Tennessee Titans running back and the science fiction monster.

On the NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football,” former wideout and analyst Nate Burleson compared Washington’s defensive line to the San Francisco 49ers’ front that helped them make the Super Bowl last year. Co-host Peter Schrager then marveled over seventh-round safety Kam Curl’s 76-yard pick-6 and openly wondered if quarterback Dwayne Haskins might be in line for redemption if Alex Smith is hurt for the long term.

In the same segment, NFL analyst Kyle Brandt said Washington’s defensive line was one of the “most powerful and terrifying forces” in the league — only behind Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes’ connection with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers’ chemistry with Davante Adams.

“Those are three that ain’t nobody want no part of,” Brandt said. “I said it before, I’ll say it again: Washington is going to have a home playoff game this year.”

The buzz isn’t just on sport talk shows, either. Rivera said he’s starting to see excitement within the community. Within the last week, Rivera said he’s had three instances of people recognizing him and getting excited.

One was at the drive-through at Starbucks, where Rivera said the cashier gathered people to come to the window to see him. At a stoplight, Rivera said the person in the car next to him, mouthed, “Holy crap, it’s Ron Rivera” and then took a picture. The third was at a grocery store, where a family stopped him for a socially distanced picture.

Those types of interactions might have been hard to imagine when Washington was just 2-7 a month ago. Rivera, though, said his players weren’t discouraged and still were going about the season the right way. He saw signs that his oft-talked about culture was taking place.

Trainer Ryan Vermillion, he said, would often note how many players still came into the facility on their day off to lift weights, and how many players diligently followed their recovery even when nursing minor injuries. Though those details may be small, Rivera said they’re all indications his team is starting to gel.

“You kind of feel that they’re understanding what it takes,” Rivera said. “To me, that’s really starting to show some of the signs of how it is coming together.”

Rivera welcomes — and embraces — the attention that comes with winning. He said he wants his players to remain humble, but recognize that they have an opportunity to “reenergize” a passionate fanbase. He added they can do that, in part, by playing smart, physical football.

For so long, Washington was a franchise mired in chaos. Even when Rivera joined the team at the beginning of the year, he quickly saw firsthand how dysfunctional things can get. The team’s name changed months after his arrival, with the franchise dropping “Redskins” due to pressure. Around the same time, the NFL launched an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations in the team’s workplace. Oh, and Rivera disclosed a cancer diagnosis, too.

Those issues don’t disappear because Washington has strung together a winning streak. But now, the attention has partially shifted to the on-field product.

“Please judge us based on where we’re going as opposed to where we’ve been,” Rivera said.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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