Two years ago, owner Dan Snyder introduced Ron Rivera and boasted that his new hire was a two-time coach of the year. Rivera won the award twice with the Carolina Panthers.
“For those of you who don’t understand, that’s very, very hard to do,” Snyder said. “You should Google that because it’s an impressive, impressive (accomplishment).”
If Snyder were to fire up Google these days, however, he might discover that Rivera’s record through 32 games with the Washington Football Team is the same as his predecessor Jay Gruden. Both men were 13-19 for the first 32. Over Snyder’s more than 20 years as owner, none of his hires have been able to produce a winning record in those first two seasons. Joe Gibbs, in his second run, came the closest: 16-16.
No matter how accomplished, coaches under Snyder have come to quickly learn winning in Washington is not a simple task.
A day after the team was officially eliminated from the playoffs with a 20-16 loss Sunday to the Philadelphia Eagles, Rivera reflected on the challenges he’s faced since taking the job. This season was a setback for the coach and the franchise. Last year’s surprising playoff team is now 6-10, closing out the season with a road game against the New York Giants in which the biggest prize — a higher drafter pick this spring — goes to the loser.
“Believe me, I didn’t come here thinking that this is going to be an easy turnaround, those first two years are going to be great,” Rivera said. “No. I think we outdid the expectations our first year and I thought coming into the second, and I said it … there were certain things I was still concerned with.
“Now going into the third year, I believe we’ve taken some big steps.”
Rivera initially laughed when asked Monday what he thought his biggest challenge has been so far in rebuilding the Burgundy and Gold. He acknowledged the number of off-the-field incidents — a workplace sexual harassment scandal, his own cancer battle and COVID-19, to name a few — have been “tough.” But then he honed in on “fit” — noting the team’s search to find the right players who can “do the things we want to do,” Rivera said.
Snyder’s hires, including Rivera, have typically stepped taken over at times when the roster was badly in need of an upgrade. Both Gruden and Rivera inherited teams that went just 3-13 the year before. And while the number of young prospects appealed to Rivera in taking the job, he has since turned over the roster.
Washington’s regression in 2021 comes after Rivera remade the team’s front office in the offseason. The team hired general manager Martin Mayhew and a slew of executives who report to Rivera, one of the few coaches in the NFL to hold authority in personnel matters.
Despite this season’s setback, Rivera expressed his confidence in the new structure — telling reporters he believes he and his executives are all on the same page.
Still, the stakeholders have questions to answer in the coming months. Namely, who is this team’s quarterback? Washington relied on backup Taylor Heinicke this season after free-agent journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick suffered a season-ending hip injury in Week 1.
Washington, though, figures to have plenty of salary-cap space to address needs. Over The Cap projects them to have the fourth-most ($61 million) in the NFL. On Monday, Rivera embraced the big expectations for his third season at the helm.
“This is what I went through my first two seasons in Carolina,” said Rivera, who was also 13-19 to begin his stint with the Panthers. “There are some things that have mirrored ‘em, there are some things that have been new and have been very challenging. But at the end of the day, with where I think the players are in terms of their growth and development, it gives me reason to be optimistic.”
By Year 3, Rivera said, a team’s younger players should be ready to contribute consistently. In Rivera’s third year with the Panthers, Carolina went 12-4 — winning the NFC South and making the playoffs. That squad took a step forward with a sturdy, young defense and an electric offense led by Cam Newton.
Washington? The franchise hasn’t won more than 10 games in any regular season under Snyder.
“I believe we have an opportunity,” Rivera said. “So, we’re gonna continue to approach it that way.”