- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2020

LANDOVER — Just days after vowing his team wouldn’t quit this season, no matter what, Washington coach Ron Rivera’s declaration was put to the test. In the very first game of the year, no less.

So, when the Washington Football Team backed up its coach Sunday by slowly, drive by drive, climbing out of a double-digit deficit and back into the game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Rivera responded late in the contest with a stunning testament to his faith in his players.

Facing fourth-and-1 inside the 5-yard line in the fourth quarter of a tie game, Rivera made the decision that proved crucial to Washington’s 27-17 victory: He went for it. And Washington converted, leading to a go-ahead touchdown from Peyton Barber just two plays later.

“My first couple years as a head coach I made that mistake, not showing the team early enough that I believed in them, so it took us a little bit longer (to win),” Rivera said. “I want these guys to know I believe in them, I believe that we could get that first down, and they did.”

Washington erased a 17-point deficit Sunday and stormed back to beat the Eagles, scoring 27 unanswered in the first win under Rivera inside a fan-less FedEx Field. The victory was Washington’s first home-opening win since 2014 — and first since changing its name from the Washington Redskins to the Washington Football Team. The team won after months of chaos that rocked the organization, chaos that Rivera was hired to clean up.

Rivera earned a nickname on decisions like the one he made on Sunday. In Carolina, he was dubbed “Riverboat Ron,” a label that stuck all the way to Washington, where a recent illustration from the team depicted the coach in a white suit and top hat, shuffling cards in front of a riverboat. But Rivera tends to deflect credit, choosing instead to focus on his players.

Against the Eagles, Washington’s win wouldn’t have been possible without the defense. Throughout the afternoon, the defensive line punished Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz and a depleted offensive line — logging eight sacks. The secondary also picked off Wentz twice, which contributed to the momentum swing toward Washington.

For months, Washington’s defense had downplayed the preseason hype over its collective talent. Potential, players and coaches said, was meaningless — they had to get results.

So it was fitting then when second overall pick Chase Young sealed the game with a strip-sack fumble that was recovered by Ryan Kerrigan, whose two sacks put him past Dexter Manley to become Washington’s s all-time sack leader.

More so, this was a test of character for Washington. And Rivera and his players realized it. After all, just last year, the situation was reversed: Washington went up 17-0 in its season-opener against the Eagles, only to squander the lead.

At halftime, quarterback Dwayne Haskins reminded his team of that game. During the intermission, Rivera was getting an IV from doctors as part of his medical plan, so he was unable to address the group. Haskins, though, stepped up unannounced — delivering a passionate speech about the opportunity.

“There’s no reason why we should be feeling like we should be a little bro to them,” Haskins said he told the team.

“He got everyone riled up,” said cornerback Fabian Moreau, whose interception before halftime led to Washington’s first score, “and put it on his back.”

Rivera said he saw a calmness in his players on the sideline when Washington started its comeback. He said he was proud of the group, especially with how they responded after a rough start. “I’m not sure who played that first quarter for us in burgundy, but I like what they did” after that, Rivera said. 

It was, for Washington, an unexpectedly optimistic start to what promises to be perhaps the most unusual season in NFL history. 

From pregame protests to new uniforms to the atmosphere in the empty stadium, the differences were palpable in FedEx on Sunday. Before kick-off, Washington took part in a social justice demonstration that honored victims of police brutality and other violence.

Players and coaches locked arms during the playing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the song known as the “Black national anthem” that will be played at every game this year as the league incorporates social justice messaging into its events.

Then there was the playing of the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Philadelphia remained in the locker room, while Washington stood on the sideline with several players — including Haskins — raising fists.

For all the changes, the biggest was the result on the field. Philadelphia had beaten Washington in six straight games prior to Sunday and had won the NFC East last year.

The significance wasn’t lost on Rivera. As the team handed out game balls in the locker room, Rivera told his players that they were the “real deal.” He told them not to let one game go to their heads, but the victory helped reinforce how good they can be.

“It just shows what these guys are capable of,” Rivera said.

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