ASHBURN — Ron Rivera has a saying. Lots of ’em, in fact.
Over Rivera’s first year in Washington, the coach has relied often on these sayings as a way to affirm the culture change he wants to effect across every aspect of a troubled franchise.
Rivera’s pearls of wisdom often go beyond typical coach-speak, the “one game at a time,” the “control what you can control” and the other cliches coaches recycle over and over.
Instead, Rivera’s aphorisms — or Rivera-isms, if you will — offer insight into the guiding principles that have helped the old-school coach navigate a chaotic and unpredictable season.
On Sunday, Rivera and Washington have a chance to clinch the NFC East — a scenario few would have predicted at the start of Rivera’s tenure less than a year ago. Since Rivera came aboard in January, the franchise has been forced to drop its nickname and has been embroiled in an NFL workplace misconduct investigation that may even extend to the owner.
Amid that and while trying to pull a football team out of the cellar, Rivera himself has been fighting cancer.
Now, on Sunday, Washington can cap one of the most tumultuous years in franchise history by beating the Carolina Panthers — ironically, the coach’s old team.
It was in his nine years at the helm in Carolina that Rivera-isms became a big part of how the coach communicated his philosophies on football — and life — with his players.
“I know that I’ve got a million sayings, but I think there’s a lot of truth to them,” Rivera said recently.
His sayings may not translate directly into wins and losses. But closer examination indicates a link between Rivera’s coaching mantras and the surprising success that Washington has had this season.
‘It takes 5,000 reps’
In Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book “Outliers,” the author proposes that it takes 10,000 hours to truly master a craft. For Rivera, the football equivalent is 5,000 reps — though he’ll be the first to admit the number is a bit arbitrary.
“It takes repetition, repetition, repetition,” Rivera said.
Rivera notably inherited a young football team coming off a dismal 3-13 season. With 27 players 25 or younger, the coach preached patience and said the team would need time — and reps — to develop. Rivera not only installed new playbooks, but the players would have to learn how to meet Rivera’s high expectations.
Starting around mid-October, Washington began turning a corner. The team’s next three losses would come by just a combined seven points. Then, Washington, of course, rattled off four in a row to take control of the division. Players and coaches believed that the victories were the result of their growth throughout the season.
“He doesn’t allow anything less than the standard,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said. “That’s probably what I appreciate most from coach Rivera being here in these six months.”
Has Washington actually hit that 5,000-rep marker? Maybe. Center Chase Roullier, for instance, has played 100% of the snaps this season at 963. Now add in 14 weeks of practice — at least 42 sessions total — and a month of training camp, it’s not hard to imagine some actually hitting or almost reaching that figure.
‘Don’t draw me a map unless you’ve been there’
Rivera often connects this with defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. When Rivera was forced to miss a few practices due to cancer treatments, the coach said he felt comfortable with Del Rio given that the former two-time head coach filled in for John Fox in Denver when the Broncos coach missed a month because of heart surgery. Rivera says one of his early mistakes in Carolina was that he failed to surround himself with former head coaches to lean on.
Beyond the battle with cancer, Rivera likes to bounce ideas off Del Rio, both former linebackers who share a passion for defense.
Together, they’ve transformed the Washington defense into one of the NFL’s elite units: Fourth fewest yards per game allowed, fifth-fewest points, third in defensive DVOA (efficiency).
‘Figures lie and liars figure’
Rivera’s coaching philosophy boils down to two sides on one coin. On one side is the Lombardi-style disciplinarian whose work ethic was established while growing up in a military family. On the other side is a surprisingly new-school embrace of analytics by a risk-taker who has fittingly earned the nickname “Riverboat Ron.”
The latter has already made his presence felt in Washington this season. His decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 inside the 5-yard line of a tie game helped swing a Week 1 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. He also opted to go for two near the end of an October loss to the New York Giants, an attempt that failed.
Rivera said there’s a balance a coach has to strike. “Figures lie and liars figure,” he told reporters earlier this year while explaining that coaches can’t just rely on probabilities or settle for the safest bet. “Sometimes it’s a feel,” he said.
Rivera trusts his gut when it comes to the big calls. Look no further than his decision to bench last year’s top draft pick, Dwayne Haskins. The move, at the time, drew criticism.
But Rivera was convinced that playing backup Kyle Allen, a former Panthers starter well-versed in the offense, would give the team a better chance. He saw how every team in the division was under .500 and Washington’s upcoming six-game slate could be a chance to seize the division.
“I just felt there was an opportunity and I wanted to take it and see what happens,” Rivera said. “Low and behold, we’re in that position right now.”
Right tackle Morgan Moses said the decision — and telling the whole team about it in-person — earned Rivera respect in the locker room.
“When you have a coach like that, that is honest and upfront with you about it, obviously it’s a hard pill to swallow when somebody’s telling you, ‘Hey, you’re not doing this,’” Moses said. “But at the end of the day you respect that person, because instead of having somebody else tell you, he’s sitting there telling you to your face.”
‘Be where your feet are’
Anyone who has played under Rivera for years has likely heard this message hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Rivera said he picked it up five years ago from a close friend who is a sports psychologist.
The meaning is simple: Pay attention to your environment. Try to make the most of the situation. Be the best you can be.
The saying felt especially relevant this week when Rivera disciplined Haskins after the quarterback was caught partying indoors without a mask. Haskins failed to live up to that standard and was fined $40,000 as part of his punishment.
Rivera, though, chose not to suspend Haskins. He said the 23-year-old issued a “very genuine apology” and was forthright. Instead, Rivera gave Haskins another chance, possibly his last. By doing so, Haskins will have to work on his “inner A. P. E,” or attitude, preparation and effort — another big Rivera-ism.
When meeting with players, Rivera brings up those factors every day, he said. Ultimately, it’s on the individual to determine his or her own attitude, preparation and effort.
It’s why Rivera, even when battling cancer, said he tried to give all that he could and maintain a positive attitude.
Throughout the season, Rivera has found ways to save, or restore, his energy. He takes 20, 25-minute naps before practices and games. He leaves the facility and goes to bed much earlier than he did as the coach in Carolina. Rivera, who completed his cancer treatments in October, has gained more and more strength as the weeks go on, but admits he’s still not as active as he’d like to be.
But for any physical strength that may not be there, Rivera can still rely on his words.
“I really do think about what I’m going to say to guys, say to the group and the team,” he said.