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Opinion: Rivera fails to “read the room”

I’m not a fan of what Ron had to say following the loss to the Saints this week

In his Monday morning Zoom session with the media, Ron Rivera got a bit testy as the journalists asked him repeatedly if he was going to take any significant action to fix the ongoing defensive failings that plagued the team during the first five weeks of the season. At one point, he tried to simply cut the questions off before they could be asked.

Here is a feel for the flow of the Monday media session:

After flatly refusing to consider or discuss coaching or scheme changes, when Rivera was asked a second or third time about what action he might take, he snapped, “Boy, you guys really wanna go there, don’t you?” and added, “I don’t see the issues the way you guys do.”

It seems clear that Coach Rivera doesn’t see the issues the way anyone does at the moment. What everyone else sees is five weeks of underperformance by the defensive linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties. What Ron sees is apparently 54 pretty good plays against the Saints with two mistakes: “We had two plays that, if you could take [them] back, it’s a different conversation.”

Coach Rivera seems to be referring to the first touchdown of the game in which Deonte Harris was running wide open down the middle of the field and scored on a 72-yard connection from Jameis Winston, and, I guess, the 49-yard Hail Mary pass that gave the Saints a 7-point lead as the first half expired.

I’m not sure where Alvin Kamara’s 23-yard scamper into the end zone fits in this analysis, since the coach repeatedly referred to “two plays” that changed the game. Earlier in the media session he had answered a question about that play by saying that a poor run fit on the rushing TD (that is, a player out of position) was to blame. It was, he said, an example of the kind of “detail” that the coaches and players need to clean up.

As the questions kept coming on Monday, Rivera got increasingly frustrated, at one point actually saying, “Okay, so we’re gonna start changing people; who else am I gonna go to?”

I think there are plenty of observers who would point to Jeremy Reaves on the practice squad as an answer to that question. When Reaves and Kam Curl were playing safety together in the last few games of 2020, the defense was playing very well, and we weren’t seeing the sort of coverage breakdowns that have happened with regularity with Bobby McCain and Landon Collins on the field. It’s hard to imagine how it could be much worse, and it would call for minimal disruption to the team to sign a guy off the practice squad who has been with the franchise for years and started several games for you last season.

But Ron’s uncomfortable media session didn’t end there on Monday. Asked about taking over more responsibility for the defensive play calling, Rivera snapped and scolded the beat reporters asking questions:

“Guys, guys, guys, guys, guys, guys, guys, guys, guys, I’m not going that way. I like what we did.”

I like what we did?

Man, I understand that you don’t throw players or coaches under the bus in a media session, but Coach Rivera has to understand that there’s not a lot to like in what his defensive secondary has done on the field through five weeks.

  • Washington is one of only 6 teams to have given up 2,000 yards of offense to opposing teams through 5 games. Averaging 400+ yards per game is not an impressive feat when it’s on defense.
  • Washington is one of only 6 teams to have given up 1,450+ passing yards through 5 games — that’s an average of just over 290 passing yards per game.
  • Giving up 31 points per game ranks Washington 31st out of 32 teams in the NFL.

So, I’m wondering — what exactly is there to like?

Against the Saints, the statistical production mirrored the season averages. The defense surrendered 369 total yards, 271 passing yards, and 33 points. That kind of performance isn’t explained away by players being out of position on two plays, which is what Coach Rivera seems to want us to believe.

Doubling down

Look, I can understand that the coach might’ve been caught a little off guard on Monday morning and lost his composure a little bit. But, after that session, he appeared later on local radio. Despite now being fully aware of the sentiment he was facing, Ron Rivera doubled down. Here’s a tweet from John Keim reporting exactly what Washington’s head coach had to say after having plenty of time to think about things after the Monday morning media session:

Wow! I don’t really know where to begin. Of course, a lot of this is just a repeat of Monday morning’s assessment, but Rivera really got a head of steam up and expanded on some themes and added some new thoughts as well.

Here’s what the head coach added to his Monday morning comments:

“You almost want to say, ‘Man, I wish 7-9 last year wouldn’t have been good enough to win the division; that way, the expectations would have been much lower and would’ve been a little bit easier.’”

Are you kidding me???

Ron says he’s feeling the pressure of expectations that come with winning the NFC East with a 7-9 record in 2020?!?!

Is this the same guy who talked before about having shoulders broad enough to take the pressure? Is this the guy who stood at the podium 21 months ago and said he didn’t have the patience for a 5 year plan, that his goal was to win a super bowl, and that fans had the right to be disgruntled and unhappy until they saw better play on the field?

Let me take you back to January 2, 2020 — the day Ron Rivera was introduced as the new head coach of the then Washington Redskins.

I told [Dan Snyder] I didn’t want to go through a five-year rebuilding process because quite honestly, I don’t have the patience and from what I read, neither does he. We understand that. I told him this team has some raw talent. It really truly does. It’s got some quality veteran leadership that can help this team become contenders. At the end of the day, guys, this is what the team’s going to be made of. It’s going to be made of good, quality, young football players and solid veteran leadership to help us take this football team to the next level.

[My] main goal is to build a consistent winner and to win a Super Bowl. I know somebody said you shouldn’t say that. Well, I’m going to say it because I’m going to put it out there. The thing about it more so than anything else is you can’t be afraid to put yourself out there.

The only reason you become a head coach in this league, in my opinion, is to win. That’s it, that’s the bottom line. If you do it for any other reason, you’re wrong. That’s what I want to do and I really do. I’m not just saying it because I’m at a press conference, I’m saying it because I truly believe it.

I’ve been very fortunate football has been a big part of my life – this is going to be my 34th year in the league, so I’ve seen a lot, I’ve done a lot and the one thing I’ve had was I’ve had the success to be on a Super Bowl championship team. I would love to give these guys that opportunity, so they know what it feels like, what the experience is when you’re standing on the podium. That’s what we want to work towards. We want to work towards that going forward and I want our fans to know that’s what we’re going to work for.

I understand they’re disgruntled, I understand they’re upset, and they deserve to be. We haven’t won, so we’ve got to start winning. But I tell you, if you give us the opportunity and get behind us, we’re going to give you our best effort. That’s what we’re going to do as a football team.”

I was signed up for this message back in January last year.

Ron said he didn’t have the patience for a five year plan, but now, well into the second season, he’s preaching that “patience” is necessary for a team that he repeatedly describes as “very young” and, lately, “immature”.

It seems to me that anyone who is a Washington fan after the past two-and-a-half decades has a right to be a bit demanding, but that’s really beside the point. Personally, I think fans can show a ton of patience if they see progress. The problem is that the Washington defense has regressed — and I don’t mean they’ve slipped a few spots in the ratings...the 2020 defense that was top-5 in just about every major category is now among the bottom 20% in most defensive statistical categories.

Worse, however, is that the defensive secondary looks confused and disorganized on the field week after week. Even people who know nothing about football watch opposing receivers run wide open down the field and ask, “That’s not supposed to happen, is it?” (Spoiler alert: it’s not)

Impressively, the Chargers had 4 different receivers with catches of 19 yards or longer in Washington’s season opener, and the team famously surrendered 14-18 3rd downs (excluding the kneel down on the final play of the game).

The Giants had three receivers with catches of 20+ yards, but, of course, Saquon Barkley also had a run of 41 yards and Daniel Jones ran for 95 yards and a TD on 9 carries.

The Bills, of course, put up 481 yards of total offense, with 359 passing yards, 4 passing touchdowns, and 43 points.

(In fact, it turns out that the WFT defense has given up 4 passing touchdowns to 3 consecutive passers — Josh Allen, Matt Ryan, and Jameis Winston).

For Atlanta, Cordarrelle Patterson had a career day, with 116 scrimmage yards and 3 touchdowns. The Falcons converted 10-16 3rd down plays and put up 30 points.

Washington has given up 29 points or more to every team except the Chargers.

The Saints, of course, scored a rushing TD of 23 yards and passing TDs of 49 & 72 yards. Adam Trautman added a 32-yard reception on the Saints’ final TD drive that doesn’t appear to count as one of the two breakdowns that Coach Rivera identified as game-changers. Trautman’s catch put New Orleans into field goal position on their final drive, and pretty much started dropping the curtain on any chance Washington would have to mount a comeback victory.

Ron Rivera isn’t reading the room

Coach Rivera is minimizing the team’s problems, trying to say that if those two plays hadn’t happened everything would have been okay.

And now he’s complaining that expectations for his team are too high because they won the division with a 7-9 record a year ago.

The coach doesn’t get it.

The discontent isn’t because of two plays against the Saints; the discontent arises from 5 consecutive games filled with mistakes and embarrassing plays by the Washington secondary. The discontent is because players who are getting paid premium contracts are regularly out of position and seem incapable of tackling opposing players with any consistency. The discontent is because the team’s first round draft pick apparently isn’t good enough in the coaches’ opnion to play 30% of the defensive snaps. The discontent is because the coaches don’t seem to have a plan aside from ‘working on the details and correcting the little things’.

If Ron Rivera didn’t want the pressure of high expectations, he shouldn’t have talked about winning super bowls on his first day in DC. Honestly, I don’t hear fans complaining this week about the team being less than a super bowl contender — I think they’d be content just to see opposing offenses convert less than 50% of 3rd downs and score less than 30 points. If Ron Rivera thinks fans have unrealistic expectations right now, then I’d submit to you that it’s the head coach whose expectations are too low, not that the expectations of fans are too high. I think most of us just want to stop seeing the defensive secondary embarrassed on a weekly basis.

Ron closed out his radio comments this week by saying, “This is hard. This is the way it’s supposed to be.”

While not approaching the levels of tone-deafness achieved by Bruce Allen’s “damned good culture” comment, I think Ron Rivera is getting it wrong this week. He’s a long way from Brucifer levels of bad communication decisions, but he’s not reading the room, and he sounds like he’s starting to blame the audience.

No coach, this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be now. This is the way it was supposed to be last year.

On your first day in town, you said you didn’t have the patience for a 5-year plan. That was music to my ears, because I thought that meant we had a sense of urgency. But, now I have to wonder; if we aren’t on a 5-year plan, are we on a 3-year plan? A 4-year plan? What exactly should fans’ expectations be?

On Day 1 on the job, Ron Rivera said, “If you give us the opportunity and get behind us, we’re going to give you our best effort.” I saw a lot of evidence of that last season when a flawed roster over-achieved, but if what I’ve seen on the field through five weeks of the 2021 season represents the team’s best efforts, then something is desperately wrong somewhere.

I don’t know if it’s the roster Ron Rivera has built, the way the coaches are approaching things, or something completely different, but Ron & Jack’s defense has gone backwards since last season. Fans expect a great deal more, and it’s been troubling this week to listen to the head coach speak and get the sense that his expectations are being met.