It started with a Zoom meeting.
Unable to gather his team in person, new Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera assembled them virtually this offseason, to give them a fiery speech about what it would mean to play for him.
“I remember his tone,” receiver Terry McLaurin said this week. “It wasn’t like it was aggressive, but you knew he meant business.”
Neither coach nor players had any idea what was about to follow. One of the most eventful seasons any NFL team has ever experienced continues Saturday with a playoff game against the legendary Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Washington, which may have to rely on a quarterback who was taking math classes at Old Dominion five weeks ago, is a heavy underdog. Yet there was no sense of resignation this week, instead a question that Rivera continued posing to his players.
“Why not us?”
In any other year, that thought would be laughably dismissed. Given what Washington has been through, it feels like a fair question to ask.
Out with the old
Just before training camp, Rivera had been diagnosed with squamous cell cancer. It was curable, but he would need to undergo a series of treatments that included radiation and chemotherapy, which would zap all the energy out of him. He insisted on continuing to coach.
On Oct. 13, a day off for the players, Rivera was hitting a low point.
In a podcast interview with reporter Mike Jones this week, Rivera described being unable to walk to the team’s treatment room on his own, instead leaning on trainer Ryan Vermillion, who assisted him. A handful of players, in for treatment of their own, saw their coach struggling to walk.
Still, the next day, he was out at practice.
Not at practice that day was Dwayne Haskins, who said he was feeling sick.
Haskins, the talented but immature quarterback, had been moping around at practice the week before after being benched by Rivera, who noted the importance of not holding back the development of the rest of the team.
It was the coach’s first major decision, and with the building split on whether to move forward with Haskins, Rivera spent most of the previous week talking to players.
“He sat in front of the team and said there were going to be some things that were going to be changing, that he is going to be visiting the rooms and kind of just sharing what he feels needs to happen,” offensive lineman Morgan Moses (Meadowbrook High, UVA) said. “Obviously it’s a hard pill to swallow when somebody is telling you, hey, you’re not doing this. But at the end of the day you respect that person because instead of having somebody else tell you, he’s in there telling you to your face.”
Rivera’s fight with cancer was deeply personal for him, as his younger brother, Mickey, died of pancreatic cancer.
For the players, it provided an early glimpse of what the new regime would be like — excuses wouldn’t be tolerated.
“To see him and the toughness and the determination and the grit, I think the team kind of understands a little bit better what it looks like to man up and to handle things and to keep fighting,” said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. “This has been a resilient team. We’ve been down in games, things have happened, and nobody has batted an eye. We just keep playing and keep fighting.
“That’s one thing you can say about this team. Regardless of all the other things you want to see or hope to see, the fighting spirit of this group is special. I think coach Ron provided a tremendous example of what that looks like.”
Making a move
At 1-3, Rivera said he was aiming to win the NFC East. At 2-7, he felt just as confident.
Quarterback Alex Smith had taken the reins, and it’s possible his story is even more remarkable than Rivera’s.
Smith suffered one of the most gruesome injuries in football history in 2018 when he fractured his leg, and doctors considered amputating it before ultimately needing 17 surgeries, and several skin and muscle grafts, to repair it.
Now back on the field, he led Washington to four straight wins, loving every second of the experience.
“The last couple years leading up to this, when you get away from it all, you miss the edge that this game gives you,” he said. “Every single Sunday putting yourself out there, being accountable to your teammates, the challenge of finding a way, a formula to prepare and go out there and win week in and week out.
“That feeling that it gives you, when you’re away from it, you certainly cannot find it anywhere else. You can’t duplicate it. You get away from it and you miss it quick. So, [I’m] relishing it now.”
During that streak, Washington’s team was coming together as well.
After a Thanksgiving victory in Dallas, the team ended up having 11 days before its next game, in Pittsburgh. Players cited that as a pivotal time.
Meetings were devoted not just to X’s and O’s, but players and their backgrounds and interests.
“We were able to just talk and cut up with one another and get a feel for people’s personalities,” said defensive tackle Jonathan Allen. “That was the fun of it.”
With an opportunity to lock up the division in Week 16, Washington instead endured one of its rockiest weeks, as Smith missed the game with a right calf injury, and Haskins started the week at a birthday party that included a party bus and a nightclub environment recreated inside a hotel suite.
It would have been a bad look for the team captain in normal times after a loss. In COVID times, with partiers having just flown in from around the country and going maskless, it was a full-blown controversy.
Rivera used the phrase “house money” in the practices leading up to the final two games. Aiming to keep the pressure off his team, he reminded them nobody picked Washington to make the playoffs, and that the season marked a successful step in the right direction regardless of outcome.
Still, the tension was evident as Washington played two of its tightest games of the year, stumbling into the division title rather than decisively claiming it.
The cure? A truly “unwinnable” game against Brady and the Bucs.
This week’s practices have taken a markedly different tone, so much so that Rivera has leaned on his decades of experience and allowed his players’ personalities to shine instead of commanding the room like normal.
“It’s interesting because I wanted to keep certain things a certain way, and as we went through this and I saw a certain atmosphere that the players created for themselves, I went with it because that’s who they are,” the coach said. “I don’t want to take from them. I’ve allowed them to be who they are and have their personalities show. It seems to play well for these guys, it really does.”
That philosophy allowed Rivera to laugh off the week’s most notable quote, as rookie star Chase Young chanted that he was “coming” for Brady after the game in Philly.
Young had announced at the NFL combine that the player he most wants to sack is Brady. Now, he’ll get an opportunity.
Rivera said it reminded him of the enthusiasm he used to have as a Bears player when he would go up against Joe Montana. Young, who intended no disrespect with the comment, said he’s going to keep being himself.
“If you know me, and my team knows me, I’m excited for every game,” he said. “And Tom Brady? You think I’m not going to be excited to play against the GOAT? Then you trippin’.”
Washington has a number of significant disadvantages.
Brady is playing his best ball of the season, and Smith is hobbled by the calf injury — Rivera has hinted that he may put backup Taylor Heinicke in the game for at least portions of it.
Washington’s other two offensive stars, running back Antonio Gibson and McLaurin, are also struggling with injuries.
Rivera has been a part of Super Bowl teams as both as player and coach, but said this group is particularly special.
“This really is one of the groups that I will always be very fond of, because of what they’ve done and what they’ve come through and how hard they’ve worked,” he said. “It really is. I do mean that. There’s just something about this year that has really kind of kept me in awe of our young men and our coaching staff and our support people.
“To go through and for them to do what they did, in light of the situation that we are currently in as a world, it speaks to them.”
As for Saturday’s game?
“All you need is hope. If you went on what everybody said, then why play the game?” he asked.
“I say it goes all the way back to way back when this little guy named David upset Goliath. That’s what happens. That’s why we’re going to show up Saturday night and play hard. That’s the only thing we can do. We can’t do anything else. We can’t run and hide. We’ll show up, we’ll go out on the football field, and when the ball’s kicked off, we’ll play for 60 minutes and see.”