- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 8, 2020

On his way to the team bus, still basking in the glow of Washington’s 23-17 upset over the previously undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers, coach Ron Rivera called owner Dan Snyder. As Snyder started to congratulate Rivera for the victory, Rivera interrupted his boss to remind of the date.

Exactly one year ago, he said, the two talked for the first time to discuss the Washington job. Rivera had been fired five days earlier from Carolina Panthers and Snyder, having made a coaching change months earlier, set up a phone meeting.

On that day, Rivera and Snyder chatted for more than an hour — with 45 minutes of the conversation centered around how to build a culture within a football team, Rivera said.



“The serendipity of it all was an amazing thing,” Rivera said Tuesday.

A year later, the culture that Rivera and Snyder first talked about — and the culture that Rivera has tried to implement for months — is starting to take hold. Tied for first place in the NFC East, 5-7 Washington has now won three straight. Of its last seven games, the team’s three losses in that span have been by a combined seven points. Rivera attributes the progress, in part, to players better understanding his methods.

The on-the-field product has been unquestionably better. Washington holds a top 10 defense in nearly every statistical category: points (eighth), total yards (fourth), passing (third), rushing (10), third-down (ninth), red zone (first) and sacks (second). Alex Smith, 3-1 as a starter, has stabilized the quarterback position and helped the production of Washington’s playmakers.

But ask those around Washington, and they’ll insist a breakout like this was coming. Wideout Cam Sims said the team sensed early they would have a chance to do some “big things.” Linebacker Jon Bostic said players started to see a difference in practice earlier in the season.

“Every minute, every second we have in practice is not wasted,” right tackle Morgan Moses said. “It’s good to see the guys taking ownership of it and just going out there and playing football. When you can do those things, you can play football care-free. … It makes the game a lot easier for you.”

Rivera is meticulous in the way he goes about trying to build a team. No detail is too small, even weighing in on Washington’s uniform options. On Monday night, the team donned all-white uniforms for the first time since 2009. Despite the clamor from fans and players to bring the uniforms back sooner, Rivera said he wanted to wait until a big game to unveil them.

So when Rivera decided the Steelers’ game was the right time, he let players find out by surprise. “You could hear the excitement in their voice,” he said.

Winning, of course, helps make those details matter. If Washington had been blown out in Pittsburgh, no one would have cared about the thought that went into the uniforms. But the plan is just one of the many ways that Rivera has tried to have his players buy in. He rarely stops.

In the team’s meeting Sunday night, Rivera showed his players a hype video that was narrated by former linebacker London Fletcher to get the group fired up. Then before the team left for the stadium on Monday, Rivera had senior director of player development Malcolm Blacken text the team the clip again, hoping they would watch on the bus ride over.

Rivera said he wanted the team to embrace their status as the underdog. He had even planned for a victory speech beforehand, writing on a flashcard: “Underdogs win.”

The motivational tactics, though, help when a team has talent. And that’s now the case in Washington. The team holds a solid young nucleus with playmakers — Terry McLaurin, Chase Young, Antonio Gibson, Montez Sweat to name a few — on both sides of the ball.

With the wins piling up, Rivera said he sees his team’s confidence starting to grow. Some players took to social media Monday evening after the win to gloat. Sweat, for instance, tweeted, “Walk in yo trap and take over yo trap.”

Rivera cautioned there was a fine line between celebrating and bragging. He acknowledged that he planned to hold a PowerPoint meeting Tuesday with his team to address humility.

Even after their biggest win of the year, Rivera wasn’t done trying to build.

“Just because we won this game doesn’t mean we’re going to show up somewhere else and win automatically,” Rivera said. “We’ve got to earn it.”

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

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