EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Minutes after another discouraging defeat, Ron Rivera gathered his team in the locker room and explained what had just happened on the field. The coach’s decision to go for two near the end of a 20-19 loss to the New York Giants hadn’t worked, but Rivera wanted his players to know: Washington plays to win.
“The only way to learn to win is to play to win,” Rivera said. “And that’s what I want those guys to understand.”
For Washington, here’s what playing to win looked like on Sunday: With 36 seconds left, after just scoring a touchdown that left his team trailing by one, Rivera passed up the extra point to go for two.
Quarterback Kyle Allen, who’d just tossed the touchdown pass that brought Washington within one, dropped back, moved out and hesitated before firing an off-balance pass into a blue patch of turf.
Incomplete. Game over.
Now with a loss to the previously winless Giants at MetLife Stadium, 1-5 Washington goes from potentially vying for a piece of the NFC East lead to last in the woeful division.
It’s been a season in which Rivera has straddled the line between rebuilding the franchise into a winner for the long haul — while admittedly chasing the short term.
Rivera’s decision-making has been, at times, divisive. His benching of Dwayne Haskins weeks earlier opened him up to a flurry of criticism from fans and reporters.
His explanation for not calling timeouts at the end of games has been scrutinized. He seems to contradict himself, as when he left an ineffective Alex Smith in the game last week even though Allen — the player Rivera tapped as the best-suited to lead Washington’s push for the division — was cleared to return from injury.
Rivera, though, passionately defends his moves. That was again the case Sunday — despite the end result.
To set up the would-be game-winning two-point try, Washington had quite the rally. Allen led a 10-play, 80-yard drive that ended with the quarterback finding a streaking Cam Sims for a 22-yard touchdown.
Allen’s poise on the final drive, in particular, was impressive given that, minutes earlier, New York had taken a 20-13 lead on a disastrous Allen fumble returned for a score.
After Sims’ score, Washington players had a sense the coach was going to go for it. At the start of the drive, tight end Logan Thomas said he told his teammates inside the huddle to march down the field and then go for two — in part because he knew Rivera’s reputation.
Allen, likewise, knew what to expect, having spent the last two seasons under Rivera with the Carolina Panthers. The quarterback said there were multiple times when Rivera called on him to make a play in similar situations.
“I had a feeling,” Allen said. “That’s kind of how coach Rivera is.”
“Everybody around the league knows who Ron is and how Ron is,” Thomas said.
Execution on the two-point attempt, though, left much to be desired. Rivera said the play’s concept gave Allen multiple options, including the freedom to scramble to the end zone based on the coverage. For a moment, it seemed like the latter was going to happen — but Allen hesitated and didn’t take off.
Breaking down what had happened after the game, Allen said he didn’t try to run because of Giants safety Jabrill Peppers’ closeout speed. He added New York did a good job of disguising its defense pre-snap, presenting an all-out blitz before defenders dropped back in coverage.
The loss was costly.
If Washington was really going to compete in the NFC East, players and coaches knew the team could not afford the same-old familiar mistakes.
Allen threw for 280 yards on 42 attempts, but had an ugly interception in addition to his fumble. As a whole, the offense stalled in key moments — like when the unit produced only three points following a third-quarter interception by cornerback Kendall Fuller. Kicker Dustin Hopkins also missed a 47-yarder in the first.
The defense shared in the blame. Giants quarterback Daniel Jones had gone four straight games without a touchdown pass before hitting wide receiver Darius Slayton for a 23-yard strike on Sunday. New York converted 63.6% of its chances on third down (7 of 11), as well.
Afterward, Rivera was asked if Sunday’s loss “ate at him” or was he OK with the result because of what he is trying to establish long term. For a moment, Rivera was done with focusing on his process.
“It’s going to bug me because we lost,” Rivera said. “It really does. It [ticks] me off. I want to win football games. I don’t care this is my first year. I don’t care we have a group of young guys that have to learn.”