- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2021

DALLAS — Nick Sundberg hadn’t tweeted in just over three weeks. But upon Washington’s 56-14 loss Sunday to the Dallas Cowboys, the longtime NFL veteran couldn’t help but chime in on his old team — specifically, his former coach.

Reacting to a tweet from NBC Sports Washington’s Pete Hailey that noted the loss now sealed Ron Rivera’s seventh losing campaign in 10 full seasons as a coach, Sundberg needed only 47 of the allowed 280 characters to send a perfectly pointed message.

“Damn, looks bad when you put it like that Pete,” wrote Sundberg, a player Rivera opted against re-signing in the offseason. 

Washington was not only embarrassed in a primetime “Sunday Night Football” loss to a divisional rival in one of the worst beatings in franchise history, but the defeat brought renewed scrutiny to Rivera‘s career record. Sunday’s result guarantees that the coach will have his eighth losing season in 11 years if you count the year of his in-season firing in Carolina.

Rivera, who last year took a losing team to the playoffs in his first season with Washington, hasn’t seen the level of intense scrutiny and skepticism faced by other NFL head coaches hired in the same cycle.

He has not been mocked like Carolina’s Matt Rhule or the Giants’ Joe Judge — two second-year coaches who are quickly wearing out their welcomes with their respective fanbases. Making the playoffs bequeathed Rivera the kind of goodwill that has not been afforded Rhule or Judge.

But what happened in Dallas can change the conversation fast.

No one — well, no one serious anyway — is calling for Rivera to be fired, but Sunday’s loss shifts the entire organization’s focus from immediate, playoff-hunt concerns to long-term decisions on the future of the franchise. And Rivera, inevitably, is part of that discussion.

Rivera on Monday said he is still confident in his vision for the team. 

“This was a bad game — this ain’t a direction,” Rivera said. “I’ll tell ya that right now. OK? You look at the way we played the previous two games and in our circumstances, you say, ‘Hey, that’s a hell of an effort.’ … What happened (Sunday) was disappointing.” 

Rivera said how his players handle the final two games of the season will be important.

“That’s what will talk about where our character is,” he said.

Rivera, looking ahead to Sunday’s game, said he was concerned that a “letdown” was coming.

Heading into Dallas, Washington had an array of starters unavailable because of injuries (William Jackson III, Landon Collins) and COVID-19 (Brandon Scherff, Cole Holcomb), but Rivera said Friday’s fatal car accident involving safety Deshazor Everett in which a female passenger died was also taking a toll on his players.

Rivera said he still sees buy-in from players. He said it was “bulls—” to suggest his team had quit on the season. Rivera even views the sideline scrap between Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne as an indicator that players are still heavily invested — so much so things got physical. 

“I’d rather see them frustrated and passionate about playing the game than ‘OK, yeah, whatever’ and then move on,” Rivera said. “I think that, to a degree, is a good thing. But you really don’t want it to be like that.” 

So many coaches under owner Dan Snyder have uttered similar sentiments — and have seen how the narrative can suddenly shift. Former coach Jay Gruden was known for keeping his teams together — until he wasn’t. After navigating difficult 2017 and 2018 seasons, Gruden lost control in 2019 and was fired after an 0-5 start. At some point, Gruden’s strengths (keeping a lighter mood) were seen as weaknesses (“Club Jay”). 

That’s the territory that comes with coaching for this franchise. It’s up to that individual coach to get everyone to still buy-in. 

For now, Rivera said he’ll also use the final two games of the season to evaluate. During his press conference, Rivera floated the idea that backup quarterback Kyle Allen could see extended playing time down the stretch to give the coaching staff and front office more of an evaluation. Taylor Heinicke, though, remains the starter for now, Rivera said. 

Rivera said he’ll use this final stretch to gauge his team’s mental toughness, as well. He added Washington could even “set a tone” for the offseason by closing the year strong.

“If we don’t learn from it, and we don’t learn exactly what it means and all that stuff,” Rivera said, “then it’s a waste of time. … It’s going to tell me a lot about who we are and who we have.”

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

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