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Ron Rivera’s top 10 worst decisions in DC

This is the abbreviated version

Miami Dolphins v Washington Commanders Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

If all goes according to plan, the ignominious Rivera-era in Washington will come to an end in a week or so. It began with hopefulness that perhaps the former Panthers’ coach could bring some respectability to the long-suffering franchise, and ended - essentially - the same way that every other coaching effort in DC had under Dan Snyder’s administration. If all goes as expected, Rivera will finish his career with a 26-40-1 record in the nation’s capital.

As former Redskins’ head coach Steve Spurrier once said after a 5-11 campaign, “Not very good!”

Before he leaves the organization for good, let’s take a little walk down memory lane to re-visit some of the many bad decisions that ultimately sunk his work here, with the goal of closing this chapter in WFT history.

  1. Failing to draft a QB in 2020, and drafting Chase Young.

At the end of the day, and this day is almost finally over, I refer to the colossal mistake of the 2020 draft as Ron’s “original sin” in Washington. His failure to do the right thing with the number two overall pick in the draft was ultimately the domino that set the rest of his struggles in motion.

A small, but vocal, group of fans was skeptical of using that level of draft investment in Young at the time, and while those individuals have been vindicated in the years since, that turns out not to have been the most egregious element of the story.

In December of 2020, details of the prior draft finally surfaced, as it was clear the Dwayne Haskins’ experiment was over. It turned out that Haskins was going to be forced upon head coach Jay Gruden and de facto GM Kyle Smith over their objections that he was no better than a third round talent:

According to a new report from 106.7 The Fan’ Sports Illustrated’s Chris Russell, not only did the majority of the front office disagree with the idea of the franchise selecting Haskins, but Kyle Smith — then the director of college scouting and now the vice president of player personnel - vehemently opposed the idea of taking the OSU standout and pleaded his case for Washington to draft one of three other players.

What’s more is, Smith apparently waited and waited as the clock and picks started to inch closer to Washington’s choice … and then he started to take some command of the room.

Smith started to ask questions on what the choice was going to be. Sources described to us a tense silence. Smith asked the room specifically: Is the organization really thinking of taking Haskins?

At that point, one voice chimed in. It was the owner’s voice, confirming that Haskins was going to be the choice.

After the selection was made and Haskins was announced as the draft choice, Smith continued on.

“More silence ensued in the moments around the pick and with the pick made, Smith pushed himself up from the table and unloaded on the room - a speech that was described as “fiery and passionate’’ about the pick and how much he disagreed with the selection,” according to Russell.

It’s a virtual certainty that Smith, who was still around when Rivera arrived, shared that story, and the scouting staffs’ assessment of Haskins’ inadequacy, with the new head coach/GM before the 2020 draft. Nevertheless, Rivera disregarded it, passing over Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert when he had a shot to lock in a high-end QB during his first season in DC. The rest, as they say, is history.

2. Vastly overpaying for Carson Wentz

In early 2021, the Colts traded a 3rd round and 1st round pick to the Eagles for Carson Wentz. Yet, by the end of the 2021 season, where Wentz had gone 9-8 in Indy, Colts’ owner Jim Irsay appeared to despise Wentz with the burning passion of a thousand suns.

To the outside world, it wasn’t exactly clear why, but what was obvious was that Irsay would have been happy to part with Wentz at any price, if he didn’t cut him first.

In early 2022, GM Ron Rivera “looked at the analytics,” called Chris Ballard (the Colts’ GM) up, offered him two third round picks, a second round pick swap, and to pick up the full freight of Wentz’s salary (~$28M) in what has to be one of the worst trades in franchise history.

Ballard almost certainly couldn’t have believed his good fortune. Rivera had negotiated against himself.

3. Allowing Carson Wentz to start against the Browns in 2022.

It wouldn’t take long for Washington fans to understand the depth of Jim Irsay’s loathing of his former QB. By the end of October 2022, I was calling for Wentz to never take another snap with the franchise.

He had gone 2-4 through some of the worst football Washington fans had witnessed in recent memory, and was injured against the Bears in Week 6. Over the next nine weeks, Taylor Heinicke would go 5-3-1 and put Washington in the running for a playoff spot, despite some ups and downs.

In one of the most baffling coaching moves of his time in DC, Rivera would once again start Wentz, this time against the bumbling Browns, and Washington would proceed to lose 24-10.

Much to Ron’s confusion, the loss would also cause the team to be eliminated from playoff contention, effectively ending the 2022 season.

4. Pursuing a massive trade for Russell Wilson

While the top three items are things that Rivera was able to do, number four is an action, that - had it occurred - would have topped this entire list. Thankfully, Russell Wilson blocked the deal that could have brought him to Washington in Wentz’s stead.

Details of Washington’s offer to the Seahawks started coming out after the Broncos news broke. Washington had actually offered their 1st round picks for the next 3 years, and possibly a later round pick. They were also willing to add players, but the talks with Seattle never got past the initial offer.

Had that trade occurred, Washington would have lost - at a minimum - its 2022, 2023, and 2024 first round picks and around $85M in future dead cap. Imagine trying to recruit a new management group and head coach with that albatross hung around the neck of the organization.

5. Letting his chief talent evaluator get away.

When Rivera arrived in Washington in 2020, there was some turnover in the coaching staff, but he left the front office largely intact during the first season. Though Ron was ostensibly in complete charge of football operations, Kyle Smith was promoted from Director of College Personnel to Vice President of Player Personnel with Rivera’s arrival. Smith, who had been with the organization since 2011 as a scout was well-regarded in league circles and seemed to be ascendant.

Aside from the top pick, Chase Young, and in the absence of a second round pick, the 2020 draft still remains arguably the most successful for Washington in, at least, the last decade, producing reliable starters in Antonio Gibson, Kamren Curl, and James-Smith Williams, as well as depth talent in Khaleke Hudson and Saahdiq Charles.

Smith left Washington in 2021, as part of Rivera’s re-structuring of the front office, and quickly took a position in Atlanta’s front office. Subsequent drafts in Washington over the past three years have failed to hold a candle to that 2020 draft, and instead have included...

6. Drafting reach first and second round projects and trading up for a long snapper.

Jamin Davis, Sam Cosmi, Jahan Dotson, Phil Mathis, Emmanuel Forbes, and Quan Martin. Those are the last six players taken in the first and second rounds of the 2021 through 2023 drafts. All of them have had rocky paths to their current career locations, and only Sam Cosmi - converted from tackle to guard much later than he should have been - appears to be on a path to a potentially promising career. Mathis, who himself was surprised by how highly he was drafted, is the nearest to “bust” status at this point.

Forbes has underperformed at least 3 or 4 cornerbacks taken behind him in the 2023 draft, Davis lacked the chops to play the middle linebacking position he was drafted for, and Jahan Dotson has been eclipsed by several of his much later drafted peers from the 2022 draft.

The cherry on top that really caps Rivera’s drafting hijinks was the trade up for long snapper Camaron Cheeseman, who went so far off the rails in 2023 that he very nearly got punter Tress Way put into traction. The issue, diagnosed in the offseason, was finally addressed by Rivera in Week 15, when he finally cut the Cheese.

7. Allowing Kevin O’Connell to get away

This one isn’t discussed nearly enough, in my opinion. Just like Rivera had Kyle Smith in hand when he arrived in DC, he also had an up-and-coming offensive coordinator in house. Instead of retaining Kevin O’Connell, he replaced him with his former OC from the Panthers, Scott Turner, who only lasted three seasons in Washington before he was cut loose in favor of Eric Bieniemy.

Meanwhile, O’Connell left Washington to spend a year as offensive coordinator under Sean McVay in LA, where the Rams promptly won the Super Bowl. The following offseason, O’Connell was hired as the Vikings’ head coach, where he has gone 20-12 over two seasons since.

To add insult to injury, O’Connell has enjoyed his post-Washington success working closely with two former Redskins, McVay and Kirk Cousins. If you wrote this in a movie script, it would be criticized as unbelievable.

8. Using players in the wrong position or in the wrong scheme.

This list is going to be so long, I’m certain I’ll miss some instances, but year after year, in multiple cases players were drafted, or picked up in free agency, who weren’t scheme fits, or who were fits for the schemes that Rivera had in mind, but were forced into the wrong positions. Among those were:

I’m confident that if the new crew comes in, and keeps Andrew Wylie around, shifting him to left guard, he’ll be another post-Riv-era addition to this list.

When injury is a better GM than you are, it’s time to go.

9. Cutting Dustin Hopkins for Chris Blewitt

I’ll confess, I was one of those calling for kicking competition for Dustin Hopkins in training camp before the 2021 season. I had seen enough that I thought he could be upgraded.

Later that season, Hopkins would struggle against the Chiefs, Washington would get blown out, and Rivera would throw the kicker under the bus, cutting him after the game.

Rivera would promptly sign the unproven - and untested - Chris Blewitt, who would miss three field goals in two games and be waived in early November. In retrospect, the failure to recognize and plan for an alternative to a potential special teams’ issue that popped up in the pre-season ended up closely echoing the Cheeseman scenario two years later.

10. Failing to invest adequately in the offensive line.

This is a catch-all for a host of moves, most of which seem to stem from Rivera’s fundamental mis-orientation that defense is more important than offense in the contemporary NFL. Having cut his chops in Buddy Ryan’s dominant Bears’ defenses in the mid-1980s, it’s understandable why Rivera would hold defense in such high regard, but the reality is that the modern NFL is a game built largely on offensive dominance.

In three of four of Rivera’s drafts, he used his first round picks on a defense that had already been loaded up with first rounders in the prior three drafts. Of three second round picks, he used two to continue to bolster the defense. In the meantime, across all four drafts, he selected only five offensive linemen - with the highest being Cosmi. The two selected in 2023 have gotten virtually no playing time.

Of course, when Ron arrived in DC, he had one of the best left tackles in the league embroiled in a feud with the organization. While I lay most of the Trent Williams’ fiasco at the feet of Bruce Allen and Dan Snyder, Ron did - for better or worse - basically tell Trent he was going to have to prove himself before negotiating an extension. When it was clear the two weren’t going to be able to find common ground, Ron traded Williams for a pittance - a 2020 5th round pick and a 2021 3rd round pick. Trent has subsequently gone on to make three Pro Bowls and two All Pro teams.

After the 2021 season, Ron released his right tackle, Morgan Moses - who has started 45 games for the Jets and Ravens over the past three years - without a better alternative in hand.

With four first round picks on the defensive line, and not a single investment of that scale on the offensive front, one wonders what sort of results the defensive-minded Rivera ever really expected.

Added bonus: Rivera selected Jamin Davis over Darrisaw.

Please feel free to make any additions to the list in the comments.

Poll

Which of these decisions would you say was most egregious?

This poll is closed

  • 26%
    1. Failing to draft a QB in 2020, and drafting Chase Young.
    (736 votes)
  • 14%
    2. Vastly overpaying for Carson Wentz
    (398 votes)
  • 4%
    3. Allowing Carson Wentz to start against the Browns in 2022.
    (126 votes)
  • 3%
    4. Considering a massive trade for Russell Wilson
    (93 votes)
  • 8%
    5. Letting his chief talent evaluator get away.
    (246 votes)
  • 10%
    6. Drafting reach first and second round projects and trading up for a long snapper.
    (304 votes)
  • 3%
    7. Allowing Kevin O’Connell to get away
    (85 votes)
  • 3%
    8. Using playing in the wrong position or in the wrong scheme.
    (98 votes)
  • 0%
    9. Cutting Dustin Hopkins for Chris Blewitt
    (5 votes)
  • 24%
    10. Failing to invest adequately in the offensive line.
    (686 votes)
  • 1%
    Something else
    (48 votes)
2825 votes total Vote Now