CHICAGO — Ron Rivera’s voice started to crack. His eyes began to water, but the Washington Commanders coach didn’t necessarily look like he was on the verge of crying. Instead, the emotion — the anger — overcame him. He grew louder and louder before eventually storming off the podium to abruptly leave his press conference.
Oh, and his football team had just won a game.
After what was a badly needed win on a bad day in a bad season (so far) for the franchise in Thursday’s ugly 12-7 victory over the Chicago Bears, Rivera sounded off on a report that said it was owner Dan Snyder — not the coach — who pushed to acquire quarterback Carson Wentz. His team had snapped a four-game losing streak to improve to 2-4. And he had not, in fact, been asked about his starting quarterback in that moment at all.
But he was asked about the latest Snyder scandal and if it affected him. Rivera gave what was his typical standard response — that the players are the ones important to him — but this time, he was more animated. More passionate. And when it was pointed out to him — and when he was asked if there was something different about this game and this Snyder story — that’s when Rivera let loose.
“Honestly? I’m going to speak my mind for a second,” Rivera said. “Honestly, it’s been hard. It really has. You lose four games in a row and everybody wants to get you f—.
He paused, catching himself to not say “fired” and instead pivoting to “get on you.”
“And they’ve played their (butts) off,” Rivera said. “They have. They play their (butt) off for everybody. They come out and they show up, they work hard, all right? They don’t complain. OK? They hear all the stuff and they’ve got to deal with it. I get that and I respect them for that because they’re resilient. They come back.
“Everybody keeps wanting to say I didn’t want anything to do with Carson. Well, bull—-. I’m the f—- guy that pulled out the sheets of paper that looked at the analytics, that watched the tape in the freaking, when we were in Indianapolis. OK?
“And that’s what pisses me off. Because the young man doesn’t deserve to have that all the time. I’m sorry. I’m done.”
It was quite the shift in tone from earlier in the week — when the coach fueled a wave of headlines by simply replying “quarterback” when asked about why other rivals in the NFC East were further along in their respective rebuilds than Washington. In that same Monday press conference, Rivera tried to clarify his answer and said he saw Wentz as a quarterback the team could build around, but media coverage still focused on his initial comment. The situation caused Rivera to apologize to the team Tuesday for creating a distraction, saying his words were misconstrued.
But by Thursday, Rivera’s previous comments about Wentz were only a small footnote of the controversy to come. In the morning, ESPN dropped a bombshell report that said Snyder has told associates that he has “dirt” and has uncovered enough secrets to “blow up” several NFL owners and Commissioner Roger Goodell that he could use if they attempt to remove him from the league. “They can’t f— with me,” Snyder reportedly said in private.
Snyder’s camp strongly denied the claims — the story was “categorically untrue,” a team spokesperson said — but the report was another hard-hitting reminder that the owner is a cloud that hangs over this franchise.
He is the reason that Jerry Chadwick and Mike Saladino — two Washington fans from Charlotte and Los Angeles — traveled to Thursday’s game and wore cut-out paper bags with “Sell the team” written on them in the stands directly behind the Commanders’ bench.
He is the reason that even after a win that snapped a four-game losing streak, fans stuck around long enough to chant “Sell the team!” as rookie running back Brian Robinson Jr. was interviewed by Amazon’s post-game crew.
Robinson had scored the game-winning touchdown in Thursday’s win for the Commanders. That, on the surface, should have been a dominating storyline. The 23-year-old’s first career touchdown came in a pivotal moment for Commanders. It was a remarkable achievement considering that this was just Robinson’s second game, more than six weeks after being shot twice in an attempted robbery.
Instead, Snyder remained the focus.
“Just my feeling, I think what the league would love is for Snyder to sell the team. Not have to go to a vote, but just sell the team,” said Amazon play-by-man Al Michaels, who very rarely speaks out about league controversies, during the broadcast. “Because it’s become a major problem around the league, obviously. And we’ll see what happens. I think it’s got a long way to go, and Dan, (is) very well known for digging his heels into the ground.”
And yet there was still a football game played. A wacky one at that. Chicago had a chance to win it at the very end, but was stopped just inches short of the pylon when cornerback Benjamin St-Juste made the game-saving tackle on Bears wideout Darrell Mooney.
The stop marked the third time in the game that the Bears failed to score within the 10-yard line. Washington’s defense was far from perfect, but created enough pressure (five sacks) and forced enough stops when it mattered.
Thursday’s game even swung on a muffed punt. Washington punter Tress Way booted one 54 yards down the field — leading the Commanders to recover the muffed punt at the 6-yard line with slightly more than eight minutes left.
Robinson punched it in from the 1 two plays later. But in between, Wentz — who threw for only 99 yards, battling through shoulder and hand injuries — slammed his left shoulder into Bears linebacker Roquan Smith to free up room for a 5-yard Robinson gain.
“It was an ugly game and I’m going to do anything I can to help this team get into the end zone,” Wentz said of his block.
In the locker room, Way joked his voice was gone from screaming during the muffed punt. The longest-tenured player on the Commanders, Way has arguably been around long enough to get used — if that’s even possible — to the controversies. But he acknowledged that Thursday’s news was different.
After all, players had to play a game that same day — and wait longer than normal. “We had more time to hang around,” he said. But the punter credited Rivera for getting the team focused and ready to play.
Earlier in the week, Rivera, Way said, urged players to become “comfortable” in Washington’s situation rather than settle into the uncomfortable. If players found themselves uncomfortable, Way said Rivera told the team, there was a danger of getting overwhelmed by the hole the Commanders had dug themselves in. But if they’re comfortable, then players can embrace the challenge ahead and “frickin’ roll,” Way said.
“The love that we feel from that man is nonstop,” Way said. “He’s constantly on us how much he wants it for us. And how much he wants us to believe in one another.”
Rivera, rant and all, wants that message to take hold. Even when his boss doesn’t always make that comfortable.