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The dilemma for Washington fans: How can we end up with Eric Bieniemy as the Commanders’ head coach in 2024?

Survey Results!

RivEra Part 2?

Ron Rivera has been happy to draw a deep dividing line in the sand every time he invokes the name of Josh Harris or talks about “the new ownership group”. The dark days of the previous owner are being relegated by Rivera to a locked trunk in the darkest corner of the attic or basement as if he, himself, had never been part of that evil empire.

But I don’t think it’s mere posturing. I think that Ron Rivera got more — a LOT more — than he bargained for when he signed on with the Redskins in the dawning days of 2020. It was perhaps more of a Faustian deal than Ron realized, with him getting everything he wanted — total control of the football operations of an iconic NFL franchise and the chance to re-make it in his image — but at a cost that was likely greater than he understood at the time.

Looking at Ron Rivera this offseason was refreshing. He was smiling, laughing, and walking with a light step. He looked like a happy man.

That shouldn’t be unusual, but it was a far cry from the snarly and burdened man that he had increasingly become during the second and third years of his tenure in Washington.

Listening to Ron now, his statements echo what we’ve all been able to see with our eyes for the past few months. Ron Rivera is a man who has been able to lay down a heavy burden:

For me personally, my shoulders are a little higher. You really do feel like the weight’s off. For the most part, the best thing about it is when I come into here and get a chance to talk to you guys, it’s really been about football.

I do get the occasional ownership question, but, you know, they’re different questions. That’s made things easier on me. I can tell you that.

It’s been really cool having the ownership around, I know the players really appreciate them coming in and spending time and just interacting with the guys. You guys saw the excitement from the other day when Magic and Mr. Harris were here. I thought that was really cool.”

Clearly, a new day has dawned for Washington’s head coach, just as it has for the fan base (and probably the players too).

But, will Ron Rivera be around after the 2023 season to enjoy Year 5 of what he declared from the start was not a 5-year plan?

Based on articles in the sports media and fan commentary in social media, there is a different sort of pressure on Ron Rivera now. It seems that a lot of people want him gone.

In this week’s Reacts survey of Hogs Haven readers, we asked people to express their attitude toward Ron Rivera’s tenure as the head coach of the Commaders. The poll assumed that Ron would survive to the end of the 2023 season (in other words, there was no option for an in-season firing).

Only 11% of respondents felt that Ron Rivera had done enough already to earn his 5th year no matter how the ‘23 season worked out. For everyone else, Ron’s continued employment is conditional.

In fact, 59% of those responding to our survey said that the Commanders needed a winning season or a playoff season to keep his job. 51% said that the team needed to reach the playoffs or win at least one game for Ron to stay on in 2024.

Winning, it seems, is what matters to Washington fans.

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The fans are not alone.

Answering a question about Ron Rivera’s job security this week, the managing general partner of the ownership group, Josh Harris, seemed to have the same mindset:

I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Coach Rivera, He’s a good man; he’s done a great job in terms of where the team is relative to where it was when he got here and relative to a lot of the distractions going on. He has a very capable front office.

We’re getting up to speed.... It’s going really well…. Ultimately, we have to deliver wins on the field.... It’s just out there; so far, so good.

In short, kudos to Ron for re-shaping the franchise over the past 3 years with an incredible number of challenges and distractions, but now it’s time to get the payoff — wins on the field.

This is not breaking news. It’s been apparent to anyone and everyone paying attention to Washington football this offseason that 2023 would be a pivotal year for the head coach. Ron Rivera himself has said in recent months that he is “auditioning” for the new owners and that he has “a lot to prove”.

Sunday will be the first of 17 tests that the team will need to do well on if Ron Rivera wants to return as the head coach in 2024.

Eric Bieniemy

A lot of the reason that Ron Rivera is in this situation is that, for the past three years, he has simply been unable to secure the quarterback position or field an offense that could put up enough points to consistently win games.

Let’s not forget that Ron inherited Kevin O’Connell when he arrived in DC, but after a couple of week’s of reflection and discussion, mutually agreed with KOC to part ways, opting instead to hire Norv Turner’s son, Scott Turner, who had previously had a brief stint in charge of the Panthers offense.

Kevin O’Connell, of course, went to LA to be the OC for Sean McVay, where he grabbed a super bowl ring. The Rams averaged 23.3 ppg in 2020, but jumped to 8th in the NFL in 2021 at 27.1 ppg.

Last year, O’Connell took over as head coach of the Vikings — the latest in an impressive string of former Washington offensive coordinators to successfully make the step up with another team. His Vikings and their 8th-ranked scoring offense won the NFC North with a 13-4 record in his inaugural season.

Per ESPN, Scott Turner’s Washington offenses were very consistent, ranking 25th in scoring in 2020, 24th in 2021, and 24th again last season. Understanding that the team wouldn’t win consistently scoring 18.9 points per game, Ron Rivera jettisoned Scott Turner soon after the end of the ‘22 season.

Enter Eric Bieniemy

The hiring of Eric Bieniemy as the Commanders Assistant Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator was not on many people’s Bingo cards prior to February, but that’s exactly what happened shortly after the Chiefs won Super Bowl LVII.

I won’t rehash all of the reasons why Ron Rivera would opt to hire Bieniemy or why EB saw Washington as the right career move, but a confluence of events have now tied three men together in an unusually complex sink-or-swim partnership. Ron Rivera, Eric Bieniemy and QB Sam Howell are now inextricably bound together for the ‘23 season, and it doesn’t seem like an overstatement to say that each man’s NFL future may depend on what happens in the coming 18 weeks.

If 61-year-old Ron Rivera is fired from his current position as head coach of the Commanders, chances are likely slim-to-none that he gets another head coaching gig in the NFL. He should be able to get a job doing something, but Washington will represent a project in culture rebuilding that ended with the sale of the team and a new coach taking over to finish the job.

Rivera has even said as much recently.

If we go 8-8-1 this year and he fires me and next year they win the division and 40 of the 53 players we drafted and it’s the same quarterback, I’m vindicated. Send me my Super Bowl ring. That’s the way I look at it. I want us to be right and to see this community have that excitement again.

While 2023 is a litmus test for Rivera with a lot of downside risk, it is a season of both risk and opportunity for Eric Bieniemy and 2nd year quarterback Sam Howell. Both men could find their careers bogged down if 2023 doesn’t go well, but the upside potential is high for both of them if the offense performs well and the season is a success.

Sam Howell has the opportunity to shake off the perceptions that come with having been the first pick in the 5th round of the 2022 draft. Having a successful 2023 season could set him on the path to being recognized as a “franchise quarterback”.

Eric Bieniemy bet on himself (and on Sam Howell) when he jumped ship from the World Champion Kansas City Chiefs in an effort to get out of head coach Andy Reid’s enormous shadow. In coming to Washington to work under a defensive-minded head coach and take charge of what was one of the worst-performing offenses in the league, Bieniemy has been given free reign over everything that is offense.

But beyond that, Ron Rivera has ceded a lot of the head coaching responsibilities to EB. For example, the 2023 training camp was a totally different affair from anything Ron Rivera had run before in Washington because it was designed and run by Bieniemy, who set the schedule, set the pace, and was the driving energy behind what appears to have been a fairly grueling camp by 21st century NFL standards.

Over the past 4 or 5 years, no one has been talked about as a head coaching candidate more than Eric Bieniemy. The mystery has been why no one has been willing to give him the chance given his track record of success in KC. While race is seen by many people to be the deciding factor, that didn’t stop an owner from hiring former defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans as a head coach this past season. The issues probably have more to do with the perception that EB benefited from working under Andy Reid, and that Bieniemy’s self-admitted aggressive coaching style would not work for him in a head coaching role.

We got a taste of that last month when Ron Rivera revealed during a training camp press conference that some players had come to him with ‘concerns’ about Bieniemy’s approach.

Succeeding in Washington, especially with the high levels of responsibility that Ron Rivera has delegated to the Assistant Head Coach, would almost certainly erase all those doubts. The reward for the 54-year-old Bieniemy for a job well done would likely be to finally get a head coaching job in 2024.

And there’s the rub for Washington fans.

With so many fans leaning in the direction of getting rid of the current head coach, and with a history of having former OCs like Kevin O’Connell, Sean McVay, and Kyle Shanahan (and even former position coaches like Matt LaFleur) go on to success as head coaches of other teams, there’s a lot of muttering about the possibility of Bieniemy being ‘one and done’ in Washington, taking a head coaching spot elsewhere in 2024 and leaving us to start over again on offense in ‘25 with Rivera still in place.

What many fans want is for Eric Bieniemy to take over as head coach in Washington. In our poll this week, 66% of respondents believe right now that EB is the best person to be the next coach of the team. That’s pretty powerful support.

Of course, that puts fans in a bit of a quandry. The only way Bieniemy gets poached is if the offense plays well and the team enjoys success. But, of course, the more success the team has, the safer Ron’s job is, and the more likely it is that EB gets hired away after just one season here.

If the season is bad enough for Rivera to get fired, then chances are that Bieniemy’s offense wasn’t good enough, and in that case, why would you want him to get promoted?

This leads to a bit of damned if you do, damned if you don’t Sophies choice paradox of a mystery wrapped inside of an enigma. It is, in other words, a puzzle that seems to have no solution.

But Washington fans are familiar with the legend of Captain James Tiberius Kirk and the Kobayashi Maru. A no-win scenario is unacceptable, so elaborate scenarios have been painted that involve the team enjoying a successful season, Ron Rivera getting a “promotion” to the front office in some emeritus position alongside Doug Williams, and Eric Bieniemy taking over as head coach of the team.

To my mind, this feels a little too much like a ‘happily ever after’ tale that includes rainbows and unicorns, but a number of sober, serious fans of the team even see this ultimate outcome as part of a grand design put into action between Andy Reid, Ron Rivera and Eric Bieniemy last year. It seems to assume that Ron is ready for a graceful semi-retirement, and that the Josh Harris ownership group will be pleased with the arrangement. As I said, it feels a bit far fetched to me, but I guess there’s always a chance.

Sunday’s opponent

Jonathan Gannon, the former Philadelphia defensive coordinator and current rookie head coach of the Cardinals, has been busy making a strong first impression. Among the more interesting decisions of his young tenure has been the refusal to name a starting quarterback for this week’s game in order to gain a competitive advantage. I heard the ESPN beat writer for the Cardinals say on the John Keim podcast this week that he wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t know who the starter is until the Cardinal’s offense trots onto the field for their first offensive series.

Notwithstanding a report from Ian Rappaport that identified Joshua Dobbs as the Cardinals’ Week 1 starter, the SB Nation site Revenge of the Birds this week asked their readers who should start at quarterback against the Commanders, and, consistent with previous polls run by the site, 70% of the fans voted to start 5th-round rookie Clayton Tune.

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Personally, I hope that Gannon thumbs his nose at Ian Rappaport by putting Tune on the field just so I can read and hear about how unique it is to have a pair of 5th round quarterbacks starting the same opening-week NFL game.

Nationwide survey predicts this week’s winners

Reacts isn’t just a poll that we run here on the SB Nation blogs; it is also emailed to fans nationwide for things like game predictions and other questions that are of interest to tbe broader NFL fan base. If you want to participate in the email surveys, just click here to register.

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If things go the way SB Nation readers have predicted, then Washington, Philadelphia, and Dallas will come out of Week 1 in a three-way tie for first place in the NFC East.

Let’s hope the team starts fast this season.