ASHBURN — After one practice this summer, Ron Rivera shared a laugh with an old friend. They reminisced about the origins of the coach’s “Riverboat Ron” nickname.
Rivera, as the story goes, earned the label in his third season with the Carolina Panthers when the coach — after being stymied by a series of close losses — abandoned his ultra-conservative approach and became more aggressive on fourth down.
The earliest sign of the shift came in a Week 3 game against the New York Giants. Carolina went for it on fourth-and-1 at New York’s 2-yard-line, scoring the first touchdown of what would become a blowout victory.
Looking back on those days, Ryan Kalil, the ex-Panthers offensive lineman visiting Rivera, loved what the moment — and the nickname — represented.
“That just told us you finally trusted us,” Kalil told his former coach, Rivera recalls.
Rivera’s third season with the Panthers proved to be a pivotal one. Not only did Carolina improve to 12-4 in 2013 after going 7-9 the year before, but the campaign became a turning point in Rivera’s coaching career.
“Riverboat Ron” was born.
Nine years later, Rivera is banking on another third-year jump — this time at the helm of the Commanders.
When Washington opens the season Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, it’ll be the beginning of a months-long test of whether Rivera can recreate the same type of rise that helped him break through in Carolina. The 60-year-old, who is 14-19 in Washington after going 13-19 in Carolina through two seasons, has embraced the comparisons by repeatedly bringing up the parallels over the last few months.
But the circumstances, in other ways, are much different. Rivera hasn’t had the stability at quarterback that he did in Carolina with Cam Newton. Instead, he is betting that newly acquired Carson Wentz can finally be the solution under center. Washington unexpectedly made the playoffs in Year One at 7-9, but the defense regressed so much last season that there are now questions about whether the unit can still be the strength of the team, as it was in 2020.
Rivera may be counting on his Carolina history repeating itself, but here’s another way to look at the challenge he faces in Washington: A Dan Snyder-owned team has never won more than 10 games in the regular season.
The similarities and differences between the situations leave Rivera at a crossroads. Has his experience in Carolina lured him into a false sense of confidence? Or is the two-time coach of the year right in trusting his gut?
Is it possible to rely too much on the past?
“I’d like to believe I’ve learned from it,” Rivera said. “And so that’s why I’ve changed some of the things I do and how I do it. They may be subtle changes, but they’re important changes. … I know what it takes to get to the Super Bowl. I haven’t been able to win one (as a coach), but I know what it takes to get there. I’ve been there three times: As a player, I know what it feels like. As an assistant coach, I know what it feels like. As head coach, I know what it feels like.
“I know what it should look like. And so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
‘Put it on the line’
In hindsight, becoming “Riverboat Ron” was the obvious adjustment Rivera needed to make for those Panthers teams. Carolina was 2-14 in games decided by a touchdown or less before that Week 3 pivot, and Rivera’s tentative decision-making played a role in that record.
With the Commanders, the obvious coaching fix isn’t as glaring. Washington, for instance, is 7-9 in one-score games since Rivera took over.
Instead, asked if he sees a “Riverboat Ron” equivalent for Washington, Rivera focuses on “buy-in.” In Carolina, Rivera said one of the biggest hurdles to get players over was the notion that they were about to fall into their old, losing ways. That was especially tested early in 2013 when the Panthers lost their first two games by a combined six points. He got them to buy in, in part, by showing he trusted them on fourth down.
The Commanders are now at a point in which the roster has been remade in the coach’s image. There are only 10 players left on the 53-man roster from the year before Rivera arrived. The rest have been handpicked by Rivera and his staff. And after two years of overturning the franchise, the growth needs to take hold.
Rivera believes players have bought in for the coming season, but he noted that’s the hardest thing for a coach to achieve. Over the course of last season, Rivera felt the Commanders lacked maturity coming off a playoff berth. He wondered if they could handle their initial success, and they didn’t. “That’s on me,” he says. For this year, Rivera said he’s preached the importance of taking responsibility and building trust.
“Somehow, I’ve got to inspire them to motivate themselves that you got to put it on the line,” Rivera said. “You got to drop your nuts and put it on the line.”
It helps that Rivera feels more normal these days. After battling cancer two years ago, the coach said he’s now able to exert more energy in practice and meetings. He still gets tired, though he’s not as “fog brained” at times.
“He’s back to getting on folks,” said assistant offensive line coach Travelle Wharton, who also played under Rivera in Carolina. “He’s back to being himself.”
Others haven’t noticed much of a difference, which could be taken as a positive. Wide receiver Terry McLaurin, one of the holdovers from the prior regime, said one of the things he appreciates about Rivera is his consistency — from how he goes about handling practice to addressing the series of heavy off-the-field incidents like the shooting of running back Brian Robinson Jr.
“He’s always said he’s had broad shoulders and it’s easy to say that, but when things happen to you, you really get to see the character of a person,” McLaurin said. “He handles it well.”
Whatever it takes
When it comes to needing players to buy in, perhaps there’s no position on the roster that concept applies to more than the defensive line.
Last month, Rivera made a significant change to the room when he abruptly fired defensive line coach Sam Mills III. Expanding publicly for the first time on the shake-up weeks later, the coach now says that he didn’t see the “growth” he was looking for in Mills and the line.
To explain the decision, Rivera points back to the end of last season — a campaign that had not gone as planned, with the line underperforming, a rumored disconnect brewing and star players literally fighting on the sideline. Like he always does, Rivera conducted season-ending interviews with players and coaches. But in these sessions, the coach said he heard information that was “new” to him. “I didn’t know that all this went on,” he said.
As Rivera processed the information in the winter, he met with Mills and had a “great conversation” about “changing and growth.” But as the months went by, the chat wasn’t enough to make a difference.
On Aug. 8, Rivera watched the defensive line’s drills up close to observe how Mills was running them. A day later, Mills was fired and his assistant, Jeff Zgonina, was promoted.
Ultimately, Rivera realized he couldn’t roll with the same approach he used in Carolina, where Mills also spent time helping coach the defensive line. Those Panthers were made up of veterans like Charles Johnson, Mario Addison and Kawann Short.
“These are guys that (coaches would) give instruction to and,” said Rivera, who pauses to snap his fingers, “they’d go do it.”
The Commanders, by contrast, have a line featuring four former first-round draft picks — all of whom were selected from 2017 to 2020.
“This is a group that you’ve got to coach,” Rivera said. “You’ve got to nurture. You’ve got to mentor. You’ve got to get after. And that’s what we needed.”
“(Zgonina) brings some intensity,” defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said.
The suddenness of the firing was surprising. But it was the type of tactic that Rivera has used before. In his first year in Washington, Rivera benched quarterback Dwayne Haskins after four games. The coach justified the decision at the time in part because he felt the rest of the team was playing so hard that he owed it to them to see if a change would make a difference. His intuition turned out to be right as Alex Smith led a late-season surge to help win the division.
Granted, firing a defensive line coach may not be as impactful as benching a first-round quarterback. Still, in a crucial Year Three, Rivera knows he can’t afford to waste time.
Captain Munnerlyn said he’ll never forget the lead-up to the Panthers’ Week 6 game against the Minnesota Vikings in 2013. The former cornerback can still recall televisions playing in the locker room during the week, how pundits wondered which coach — Rivera or Minnesota’s Leslie Frazier — would be fired first.
Both teams were 1-3. Patience was running out.
“You see the writing on the wall,” said Munnerlyn, who played for Carolina from 2009 through 2013.
Many have wondered if Rivera’s job could be in jeopardy this season if the Commanders don’t make a notable leap. Those sorts of inquiries, however, don’t nearly compare to the type of pressure that Rivera faced in 2013.
Before the season, then Carolina owner Jerry Richardson surveyed players as to whether he should even keep the former defensive coordinator. Four games in, Rivera wasn’t just on the hot seat — it was scorching.
Prior to facing the Vikings, though, the Panthers experienced a moment that became a rallying cry for their season. In the locker room before kickoff, respected left tackle Jordan Gross addressed the group and the topic that was lingering over them — the elephant in the room.
The gist: Gross told teammates that Rivera was a great coach and they were about to let him down. It was on them to fix it.
“It was like everybody seen the light,” Munnerlyn said.
From that point, the Panthers rattled off 11 of their next 12 — including a 35-10 win over the Vikings. A motivational speech, of course, isn’t a cure-all. It shouldn’t be lost that those Panthers — with Newton anchoring the offense, Luke Kuechly steering the defense — ranked in the top 10 on both sides of the ball.
But to Rivera, Gross speaking up was the largest indicator that the “sustainable culture” he was trying to build was taking hold.
These days, with the 2022 season in sight, Rivera said he’s now a “little more tempered” when asked if he’s still sticking by his intuition that the Commanders will make a jump this fall.
Part of that, it seems, has to do with the anticipation of seeing how the final product actually comes together. Rivera realizes his team could take time to jell — with an offense incorporating yet another new quarterback and lingering issues like pass-rush discipline — but his belief hasn’t waned. Not after the overhaul and progress from the last few years.
And more than anything, he understands what the third year can bring.
“The buy-in is what’s important,” Rivera said. “But somehow, they have to have a reason to buy into me.”