When Ron Rivera accepted the head coaching gig of the Washington Football Team in late December of last year, he knew he would be tasked with the challenge of turning around a franchise that has not enjoyed much success over the last three decades.
But what has transpired over the past few months is nothing Rivera could have predicted back then.
Between the retirement of the team's old name, two major stories published by The Washington Post of sexual misconduct allegations within the organization and Rivera's own cancer diagnosis, it's been a difficult stretch for the 58-year-old. All of this, of course, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already created plenty of its own challenges for the head coach taking over a new team.
But, alas, the 2020 NFL season is upon us. Washington kicks off its season Sunday against NFC East rival Philadelphia Eagles, a team that has beaten the Burgundy and Gold six consecutive times.
"I like this as the home opener because these guys are the gold standard in our division," Rivera said Thursday. "[Philadelphia] won it last year and got into the playoffs. So, this will be a good measuring stick as far as where we are as a football team."
Expectations for the Football Team in 2020 aren't high. Nationally, experts view Washington as a four to five-win team. Locally, there's a bit more optimism, but many believe an 8-8 season would be the best-case scenario.
Rivera knows that. After all, Washington won just three games last year. The team made multiple additions via free agency and the draft, but besides No. 2 overall pick Chase Young, few have been splashy.
When Rivera took over as head coach, he preached the rebuild would be a process rather than an overnight fix. That still remains the case.
The head coach was asked on Thursday what he would consider a successful season in Washington, something he admitted was a good question. For Rivera, it starts with seeing his players give full effort, 100 percent of the time.
"The one thing I want to make sure, though, is that we play the right way," Rivera said. "We play hard, we play physical, we play downhill, we attack. Those are the things we’re looking for. I’m serious when I say we’ve got to give our fans something to cheer about."
Of course, wins matter to Rivera. He came to Washington to win, make no mistake about it.
But in order for Washington to turn the culture around and start stringing some wins together, they must play a solid brand of football first.
"First, it’s got to be good quality football. Then it’s got to be about winning," Rivera said. "That’s what I want to see. I want to see us winning football games, but first and foremost we’ve got to see good football. That’s the thing that we have to do. As I look at the guys that we have, I think we have a lot of good players. Now it’s a matter of getting the right group on the field and having them go out and play the right way. Then the winning will take care of itself."
One topic that has come up semi-often since Rivera arrived in Washington is this job being his second opportunity to lead a franchise. Rivera spent close to nine years in Carolina, his first job as an NFL head coach. He experienced plenty of success, including four division titles and a Super Bowl appearance, but was never able to reach the sport's ultimate mountaintop.
In Washington, Rivera has been given another chance to take over a franchise. Given a second opportunity, Rivera plans to take several of the lessons he learned during his near-decade in Carolina to Washington.
"It’s interesting because my first stint at it, it was -- if you go back and look at my record, I think it was 3-13 in games decided by six or seven points or less," Rivera said. "That was because we didn’t know how to win and we didn’t know how to finish.
"I think we were afraid to put it out there. I was -- Shoot, if I go back and look at it there were a number of opportunities that instead of kicking a field goal or having gone for it on fourth down and converted, we would’ve taken the knee and won the game. So, it’s about understanding and knowing what we had to do. I learned from those two years of really just gut-wrenching losses. Knowing going forward this is what I’m doing, that’s kind of where the whole nickname ‘Riverboat Ron’ came from."
Rivera wouldn't put a number on how many wins would determine a successful first season as Washington's head coach. Rather, the head coach believes if the team starts with the basics and plays hard, wins will follow.
"I’m not going to put a number out there. These guys have enough pressure on them," Rivera said. "They don’t need to have a number on them. What they need to know is they have to go out and play hard and fast and physical. They do their job two things the right way, believe me winning will take care of itself. But to go out there and put a number to it, no I’m not going to write a check out to cash."