- The Washington Times - Monday, December 21, 2020

When Ron Rivera learned that the Carolina Panthers were on Washington’s 2020 schedule, the coach admitted he assumed the matchup would be the first game of the season. After all, NFL schedule makers love a good storyline — and what’s better than a coach facing his former team to kick off the year?

Turns out, the possibility of beating them with a playoff berth on the line is much more dramatic.

Perhaps the league’s small circle of executives — five people map out the 256-game schedule each year — knew what they were doing when they scheduled a Week 16 matchup between Washington and Carolina, which will happen next Sunday at FedEx Field. The stakes could hardly be higher.

Despite Washington’s 20-15 loss Sunday to the Seattle Seahawks, the team has a chance to clinch the NFC East with a win over the Panthers and a New York Giants loss to the Baltimore Ravens in a matchup that takes place at the same time (1 p.m.).

On Monday, Rivera smiled when asked about possibly clinching by beating the team that fired him more than a year ago. “I’ll tell you what, that’s a good one,” he said.

Rivera, though, insisted this matchup isn’t about him.

“This is about the organization winning and getting into the playoffs, not Ron Rivera winning and getting revenge,” Rivera said. “That’s the last thing I want this to be. In all honesty, I do owe that franchise a lot. It was my first opportunity as a head coach. We got to where we got. We were in the Super Bowl. To me, this is not about that. This is about this organization growing and developing.”

A year ago, the Panthers fired Rivera after eight-plus seasons following a loss, coincidentally, to Washington. Carolina owner David Tepper told reporters he made the change in-season because he wanted to start a head coaching search early. Rivera said he wasn’t angry at the firing, just disappointed. Rivera knew that he wanted to keep coaching, and talked with owner Dan Snyder about the Washington job just five days later.

Since getting fired by his old club, Rivera hasn’t been able to fully escape his ties to Carolina. Part of that was by design: Rivera hired 12 assistants who served with him on the Panthers, and he also brought in former Carolina players like Thomas Davis and Kyle Allen. He made those moves because they were people he could trust and they knew how Rivera wanted Washington to run. Rivera has relied on his Panthers’ experience to help craft this Washington team.

At 6-8, Washington is farther along in Rivera’s first year than many expected — including the coach. Rivera said he shifted the team’s goals in Week 5, when he benched Dwayne Haskins, and pushed to make the playoffs because “nobody was running away” with the NFC East.

Rivera said he feels Washington’s development was accelerated by the fact the team had meaningful games to play every week.

That’s why Rivera said he won’t make much of facing his former team on Sunday. The coach added that Monday’s press conference will be the only time he would discuss it, besides his later media session with Carolina reporters.

“To me, the emotions of the game is, yeah, I was there for nine seasons but this late in the season is different,” Rivera said. “If this had been our opener, believe me it would have been a highly emotional game. But it’s not.”

After firing Rivera, the Panthers went in a completely new direction. The team hired coach Matt Rhule from Baylor and jettisoned quarterback Cam Newton to sign Teddy Bridgewater. In Rhule’s first year, the Panthers are very much rebuilding. At 4-10, they’ve been eliminated from the playoffs — and more changes are coming.

Tepper, for instance, fired general manager Marty Hurney on Monday and now the Panthers are in the search for a new lead executive. Hurney’s dismissal led to a flurry of rumors that he could rejoin Rivera in Washington, given the team doesn’t have a formal general manager and is reportedly expected to hire one in the offseason.

Rivera said he enjoyed working with Hurney, but refused to say if he is interested in a reunion. Rivera added he was only focused on the team’s playoff run and that he would address the general manager situation after the year.

But first, the Panthers are standing in Washington’s way.

“This game, to me, the consequence of this game is really the team, the organization, trying to be relevant, trying to take a step forward,” Rivera said. “I want to see us focus on the reasons why we want to win the game as a team as opposed to a personal reason.”


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