- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 4, 2020

LANDOVER — As Ron Rivera walked into the locker room Sunday for halftime, the Washington coach did so with the help of a team official. Exhausted, Rivera placed his arm around the man to keep his balance while using the other to speak into a phone for his scheduled interview.

More than any other game so far, Rivera’s fight against cancer was on display in Sunday’s 31-17 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

The battle was evident in warm ups, when players and coaches donned “RIVERA STRONG” shirts. It could be seen in the stands, where cardboard cutouts of Rivera’s friends and family were placed in support of the Washington coach. And there were reminders throughout the afternoon, like the stretches in which Rivera, who is undergoing chemo and radiation therapy, took a seat on the bench during television timeouts.

Rivera is fighting for his life, and his team is fighting with and for their coach. But there are going to be moments when both struggle. And that was the case Sunday, when Washington fell to Baltimore 31-17, dropping to 1-3 on the season.

To beat reigning MVP Lamar Jackson and a Baltimore team that lost just twice in the regular season last year, Washington needed perfection.

That didn’t happen.

Second-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins remains a work-in-progress and the defense, minus Chase Young (groin) lacks a game-changer. A quarter of the way into the season, Washington is still an inexperienced team looking to find its way.

“It’s a struggle. It’s a battle,” Rivera said. “And I just don’t represent me. I represent all those folks, all of people that are afflicted, all those people that fight, all those people that have fought.”

There are signs that Rivera’s cancer treatments are taking a toll. In the lead-up to Sunday’s game, Rivera missed practice Wednesday and ended up not finishing Thursday’s practice.

Speaking to reporters Friday, Rivera, who has a treatable form of skin cancer found in the lymph node, admitted the last three days had been “a bit of a bear.”

The reality of what Rivera is going through was there in plain sight Sunday. He became emotional when he talked about walking out and seeing the cardboard cutouts in the stands — the organization surprised the coach wit the gesture.

Among the images was a cutout of his brother Mickey, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2015.

There were more reminders. Rivera received two bags of IV fluid prior to the game, and during the contest, director of football operations Paul Kelly repeatedly handed the coach water and Gatorade to keep him hydrated. Rivera also occasionally took a breather on the bench. “I normally don’t,” he said.

Rivera said he felt well enough to finish the game, and he wanted to be there for his players, he said.

Beyond Rivera’s diagnosis, Sunday had shaped up as a crucial test for WashingtonHaskins in particular. Rivera wanted to see how the 23-year-old would respond after the previous week’s four-turnover disaster (three interceptions, one fumble) in Cleveland.

Rivera applied pressure on Haskins over the course of the week. He mentioned a “cutoff point.” In a private meeting, he told the quarterback to start making strides in his play. Make the right decisions. Play with the right techniques.

Haskins responded. Against the Ravens, the 2019 first-rounder threw for a career-high 314 yards and completed 71% of his passes. He also ran in for a touchdown. Rivera said Haskins “had his moments.” The quarterback agreed.

Those moments weren’t enough to upset a Baltimore team that came in as 14-point favorites.

The Ravens jumped out to a double-digit lead early, thanks to two timely mistakes from Washington’s offense: A J.D. McKissic fumble and a missed Dustin Hopkins kick. The Ravens scored touchdowns after each sequence, the second on a particularly dazzling 50-yard run from Jackson. The Ravens built such a commanding lead that former Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III made an appearance in the fourth.

Rivera, though, has said he wants the team to grow, week-to-week, in a rebuilding year. The teams needs playmakers, though, and Washington got a glimpse of one Sunday with a breakout performance from rookie running back Antonio Gibson.

The third-rounder from Memphis had 128 yards (82 receiving, 46 rushing) and a touchdown as Washington used screens and crossing routes to give the speedster an opportunity to pick up yards after the catch.

Rivera has voiced support for his players, and they’ve supported him back. Players have said they can see the effort Rivera has put in, even as the coach has battled cancer.

“It shows who he is as a person,” Gibson said. “For him to be going through what he’s going through, for him to come out and still coach us through it, give us speeches, to be here to support and coach us these games, it means a lot and it shows what kind of man he is.”

“It means the world to me,” Haskins said.

Rivera said there are people he’ll listen to if he is advised to take a break. For now, the coach plans on carrying on his duties. On Monday, he’ll review the film, meet with his coaching staff and then start to shift toward next week’s game against the Los Angeles Rams.

But first, rest awaits.

“I most certainly look forward to going home and going to bed early,” Rivera said.

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