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Paying attention to what Ron Rivera says about leadership and culture

Asking the right questions and the value of listening

When I was a younger man and still living in the U.S., I was, for several years, in charge of my company’s human resource department. One technique we used in interviewing was to ask broad questions and allow the job candidate to answer them in whatever way seemed best to the candidate.

For example, if I were interviewing today, I might ask every candidate to tell me what is most important right now. Most candidates will ask for a context, but I will instruct them to interpret the question however they like. Candidates might choose to talk about company profit, global warming, ending the COVID-19 pandemic, or restoring family values to the country. The answer provides insight to each candidate’s personal values.

Applying this to the NFL

Likewise, coaches often give insight to their thinking by the things they say, or don’t say, when answering questions. For example, when listing players, coaches will usually mention the best player first, so careful listeners can get a clue to who is having a good training camp or who is likely to top the early season depth chart.

Furthermore, if a coach is talking about another subject and voluntarily mentions players, in either a positive or negative light, that comment by the coach can offer similar insight. I used to write articles frequently on what Jay Gruden said, and what he meant.

With Ron Rivera, he mostly says exactly what he means, except when he’s trying not to, and then he struggles mightily not to twist his message out of shape. Fortunately, since the departure of Dwayne Haskins, coach Rivera hasn’t really had any need to attempt to dissemble during his press conferences.

This week, Ron Rivera appeared on a podcast, and in the course of telling a story about his battle with cancer, he started to talk about the “leadership” of the Washington Football Team. In doing so, he cited four players in particular.

You’ve got to get used to playing fast, and so I coach that way; that’s one of the things I always talk about. When I’m blowing the whistle it’s, “Okay, let’s go, tempo, let’s hustle!” It’s all tempo…play fast.

Well, [because of my cancer treatments] I couldn’t get out of the cart and do that. But my guys were doing that! You know, Brandon Scherff, Terry McLaurin, Chase Young, Jon Bostic; those guys were urging each other to practice and play with tempo.

That, I think, was one of the residual effects that happened with this team — when they saw me not being able to do it, the guys that were in leadership roles, they stepped up and did it, and that’s something that stuck with me as I kind of went through this. I was watching: who were the leaders? who were the guys that were helping to push each other?

The mere listing of names is not what made this story stand out to me, but the emphasis that coach Rivera placed on the importance of their leadership. He was watching and identifying the most valuable players on his team.

Jon Bostic

Three of those names won’t be a surprise to Washington fans. Brandon Scherff, Chase Young and Terry McLaurin are often talked about for their strong play and leadership, but the name of Jon Bostic might surprise many. Bostic, after all, is often perceived as something of a journeyman filling a position which can probably be upgraded.

But anyone who has been listening to Washington coaches for a while – from Jay Gruden to Bill Callahan to Ron Rivera – will realize that Jon Bostic has often been praised for his leadership of the defense and the team. Analysts who look only at the individual athleticism on game tape sometimes wonder aloud why Bostic is a starter at middle linebacker, which is a critical position on the defense. Importantly, Bostic is not merely a part-timer or some backup on the depth chart; in 2020, Bostic played 1,039 defensive snaps – the most of any player on the team. The next closest was Kendall Fuller with 966 snaps. Bostic is the signal caller on defense and was critically important to the success it enjoyed in 2020.

Washington Football Team v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Of course, last season, when Bostic was the defensive player most often on the field, Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 100th best linebacker in the league, with a grade of 52.7. Why does the coaching staff value a player who appears, on the face of it, to be no better than an average NFL linebacker?

The answer is that coaches see Bostic as being very intelligent and a great leader. Teammates and coaches have long praised Bostic for his ability to diagnose what the opponent is doing and help his teammates get in position. The evidence shows that coaches believe his limitations in terms of individual athleticism are made up for by what he adds as a leader, and Washington’s high defensive ranking in for the 2020 season indicates that they just might be right.

Ron Rivera’s focus on culture and leadership

In the post-draft analysis this week, Ron Rivera discussed the team’s pre-draft process and explained that the first step is not for the team to assess a college player’s on-field play, but to assess his character and culture fit.

Only after the coaches and front office have narrowed down the pool of players to the group they feel to be the right fit do they turn on the tape and grade this smaller group based on their on-field skills. This explains why their draft picks at times seemed so out of step with media analysts and mock draft experts who focus on statistical production and athletic testing, with very little insight into players’ personal characteristics.

With that in mind, consider what coach Rivera said about the team’s first round pick, linebacker Jamin Davis, this week.

He understands our culture. A tremendous background, a background I look for,” Rivera said during a Zoom call with the media Thursday night.

A very smart, intelligent young man. Plays the game at the right tempo,” Rivera continued. ”He understands what they do and that will translate very well to how we do things.”

This description also fits Jon Bostic, and this mindset from Ron Rivera about Davis explains why Bostic is such a valued member of the Washington Football Team. Despite what some analysts see as Bostic’s limitations, it is his strengths in terms of culture fit, intelligence, leadership and tempo that coaches value most – it is these strengths that keep him on the roster.

Chase Young and what it takes to be a leader

In the same podcast, Rivera was asked what made Chase Young a leader in his rookie season. It is unusual for younger players – rookies, in particular — to take on a leadership role of the magnitude that Young did. He was, after all, elected a captain by his teammates. Ron Rivera explained.

He does things the way you’re supposed to. He does things the way a leader does. You know, when he practices, he tries to be first in everything; when he’s in the workouts, he’s trying to be first with the workout. Then, when, when we’re in the game, he’s constantly going with energy on the field, comes to the sideline, they go through the corrections, and then, as soon as they’re done, he’s back over by the coaches, cheering on the offense; he’s cheering on the special teams, and when somebody makes a point, he’s one of the first guys to greet him. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a defensive guy, an offensive guy, or special teams, he’s always doing those things.

So, when, when one of your better players does those types of things. It doesn’t matter who they are. Everybody starts to react. He’s got an infectious personality too it’s very positive. It doesn’t matter what the score is he believes we have a chance. And that also [matters] to his teammates.

What stands out to me here is how little emphasis Ron Rivera places on what Chase Young does on the field during the game. Instead, he focuses on how Chase Young behaves on the sideline, in the weight room and in practice.

Building a winning roster

It’s clear where coach Rivera believes that teams are built and games are won. It’s not as much about the 60 minutes of game time on the field, but the 7-day-a-week, 12-month-per-year commitment to more than just football. And it’s every bit as much about the character of the player, what he values, and how he connects with others as it is about his on-field performance.

We’ve seen Ron Rivera act quickly to rid the Football Team of malcontents like Trent Williams and Quinton Dunbar, regardless of their skills, and to move on from a young player like Dwayne Haskins in whom the team was heavily invested because the coach didn’t think he had the values or character to be a team leader.

When you look at the players he talks about as leaders and the decisions that were made in this week’s draft, it becomes increasingly clearer why players consistently praise Ron Rivera as a great coach.

NFL: Washington Football Team at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

While winning is clearly important to this former linebacker on the super bowl winning 1985 Chicago Bears team, his view of what it takes to become a winner is critical to the path he takes to success. In evaluating winners, coach Rivera is looking for players who can perform on the field, but his primary concern is who each player is on the 348 days per year that he is not playing in an NFL regular season game.