- The Washington Times - Monday, November 28, 2022

Ron Rivera said he didn’t feel any sense of relief. Just months ago, the Washington Commanders coach heard the frustration from fans calling for his job following his team’s poor 1-4 start. But standing on a podium after Sunday’s 19-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons — a victory that improved his team to 7-5 — Rivera refused to gloat. 

Instead, Rivera noted his demeanor during the beginning of the season and how he kept a consistent tone. Specifically, he relied on his experience.

“The truth of the matter is the reason I didn’t waver was because I’ve been through this before,” Rivera said. “This is mirroring what we went through in Carolina.”

The coach apologized for again referencing his time with the Panthers — the latter of which he has done repeatedly since arriving in Washington in 2020. But he did so with good reason: The parallels are especially relevant for this year.

From near the end of last season to now, Rivera has continually embraced the idea that a team is supposed to make a significant jump in a coach’s third season at the helm. That’s what happened in Carolina when the Panthers went from 7-9 in 2012 to 12-4 the following year. Now winners in six of the last seven, the Commanders finally seem to be making a similar type of leap. 

Like Washington, the 2013 Panthers didn’t start out strong. Carolina was just 1-3 after four games — but the Panthers won 11 of their last 12 to close the season.

“What’s interesting is if you go back and you watch some of the film from some of those early losses,” Rivera said Monday, “you see how close we really were.” 

For Rivera, whose teams have a history of starting slow before finishing strong, Washington’s four losses at the beginning of the season came down to a lack of execution on a handful of plays. A missed block here. A wrong route there. But statistically, these Commanders were in a much greater hole to start the year than his Panthers team in 2013. 

Back then, there were obvious signs that the Panthers were close to competing. Even though they were 1-3 to start, Carolina still had a positive point differential of +16 in that span. Two of their three losses were decided by five points or fewer, and the Panthers’ defense was holding teams to 14.5 points per game. 

The Commanders? Washington’s point differential was -38 after the first five games. The defense had allowed 25.6 points per game. The only close loss the team had in that stretch was its 21-17 defeat to the Tennessee Titans — and even that was discouraging, considering that quarterback Carson Wentz, the team’s big offseason acquisition, sealed the loss with a late interception.

The Commanders’ season turnaround has been far more dramatic than the one the Panthers pulled off in 2013.

Over the last seven games, Washington has allowed just 15.4 points per game — slightly more than a 10-point difference from the start of the season. The offense, spurred by an effective rushing attack and a switch to quarterback Taylor Heinicke, is averaging two more points per game (20.4 from 18).

For context, the most significant strides that the 2013 Panthers made were on offense — climbing from 18.5 points per game over the first four weeks to 22.9 by the season’s end. But that was a group that had quarterback Cam Newton, a future MVP. 

And that Carolina team didn’t have to deal with the litany of off-the-field issues Washington has faced— from scandals involving owner Dan Snyder to the shooting of running back Brian Robinson Jr. in training camp.

Through it all, Rivera has been steady.

“He means a whole lot to this team, this organization,” Heinicke said. 

Rivera’s teams are often built on running the ball and playing stout defense. That’s what helped the Panthers thrive in 2013 and that approach is working for Washington now. 

In a strange coincidence, from Week 6 to 12,  the Commanders averaged the same amount of yards per game (313) as the 2013 Panthers did in that same span. They also have nearly identical splits in time of possession: The Commanders have held the ball for an average of 33:33 per game, while the Panthers’ TOP was 33:11. 

Carolina went 7-0 in that stretch. Washington is 6-1.

The Commanders, of course, still have five games left to play. There’s no guarantee that they finish with a record similar to Rivera’s previous third year, or whether they make the playoffs at all.

But at the very least, Rivera’s seat has seemed to cool considerably. 

“Fortunate for us, it did turn,” he said. 

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

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