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Ron Rivera is a Solid, Smart Football Man… But That’s Usually Not Enough in Washington

Mark Bacon—Main Event Sports DC

There’s a lot to like about the Washington Redskins’ hiring of Ron Rivera, and one way to look at the choice is as simple as it gets: They are better two days into 2020 than they were two days before it began. Rivera as the coach offers a straightforward, sleeves-rolled-up, forward-facing figure who was badly needed. Bruce Allen’s departure as team president was necessary both for optics and operations. A major addition coupled with addition by subtraction, and that’s progress, real progress.

But forgive me for thinking yesterday, after the news conference in Ashburn that introduced Rivera as the head coach, and wondering, “Who the heck is going to make the second pick in the upcoming draft?”

“The biggest thing we’re going to do,” Rivera said, “is we’re going to collaborate.”

Rivera was wooed to that moment at Redskins Park, standing behind the lectern ready to take on all comers, by Daniel Snyder, who opened the ceremonies with an awkward “joke” wishing everyone a “Happy Thanksgiving,” then took 96 seconds to introduce Rivera as the ninth coach of his ownership tenure. Each man talked about a coach-centric leadership structure and a cultural overhaul for the franchise. But a clear vision of how this will work wasn’t really in the offing, at least in part because Snyder didn’t take a question about that — or anything.

Look, there’s time, and maybe it will all fall into place. Despite the fact that Allen’s 10-year reign as an executive resulted in zero playoff victories, there are talented, diligent football people in the building. We may get announcements going forward about how the draft will be run and who will report to whom in the front office. Doug Williams was in the room Thursday and VP of Football Ops Eric Schaffer is still employed, so it’s not like there’s a complete vacuum. There’s still time to build a personnel staff — even if Rivera has ultimate say — that gives the coach the best chance to succeed. Let’s not start the new year off by being overly cynical.

But let’s also not start it by being naive.

“What the Redskins have needed is a culture change, someone that can bring a winning culture to our organization,” Snyder said in his brief remarks. “It starts and ends with our head coach.”

At one point, it started and ended with Marty Schottenheimer. It started and ended with Joe Gibbs. It started and ended with Mike Shanahan. Yet here we are, with another reboot.

Snyder’s statement was meant to empower Rivera, and it’s clearly an idea the former Carolina Panthers coach embraced — that it’s not a GM or a team president who defines how the team does but the coach leading the players. Nothing wrong with that.

But considered another way, Snyder’s statement reads like the owner passing the responsibility for the results on to the coach, absolving himself in the process.

In most other franchises, that’s reasonable, and it’s what we have wanted here for decades: an owner who steps aside to let football people do football things. The position of NFL head coach can define an organization, and Rivera’s level, professional, dignified presence already elevates Washington from what it was last week, when it was concluding a 3-13 season that ended with an interim coach.

But as Rivera and Snyder talked and met — somewhere between 30 and 35 hours, Rivera said — the owner needed to show introspection, to take responsibility for the environment he created. It takes perfect-10-level mental gymnastics to get to a point where Snyder could believe the culture needed to be changed but took no responsibility for fostering that culture in the first place. Yet maybe the owner is able to get his mind there.

This fan base already approaches its franchise with suspicion. And while Rivera is rightly hailed as a proper choice, a skeptical fan base might want its new leader to understand the pratfalls he’s about to encounter. This interview process couldn’t just be about Rivera trying to impress Snyder. It had to include Rivera asking Snyder hard questions about why his franchise, once so proud, has been an utter failure over the two decades of his stewardship. Pull a stat from a hat: Snyder’s Washington teams have lost at least 11 games in a season seven times but not once posted an ­11-win campaign.

“We talked an awful lot about those things,” Rivera said. “We talked about the things that he’s learned, and he’s grown as a person and as an owner. It was a very frank conversation, and he was very honest, very upfront and very candid.”

And Snyder? Well, we will have to trust what Rivera said because Dan exited through the side door. Still a snake.

What Rivera said Thursday was much of what we have heard from new Washington coaches in the past: that Snyder wants to win, that Snyder remembers what made this franchise great, that Snyder can recall when playing in Washington was among another team’s greatest fears. He said a tour of the team’s facility shows Snyder’s financial commitment to giving his players every edge they could need.

And on personnel? He likes what Washington has in-house. Here’s the best glimpse of how it will be selected going forward.

“We’re going to get together as a group, and we’re going to discuss things,” Rivera said. “If we have to continue to discuss things and it goes a little bit longer, then we’ll ask Mr. Snyder to help.”

Oy vey.

Don’t give in to your gravest fears, though, at least not yet anyway. The second pick in the draft — Chase Young, please — could make a major impact, and Rivera himself said he doesn’t have the patience for a five-year rebuild. Let’s not let cynicism about what was left unanswered and whether the owner took questions carry Rivera’s day. Maybe he has the temperament to appease the owner and lead the players simultaneously. Either way, he’s excited.

“I want to thank Dan for the opportunity to be his head football coach,” the coach said. “. . . His desire to do things the right way, to give me every opportunity in this organization, every opportunity to be successful, that doesn’t happen very often in the NFL, where you go to a place and that person is going to give you every chance to win the Super Bowl. That’s why we’re in this game.”

Wait, Rivera didn’t say that? Oh, sorry. That was Shanahan during his introductory news conference. The 10th anniversary of that event will be Monday.

On Thursday afternoon, Rivera stood in that same room, fielded some of the same questions and expressed some of the same hopes and dreams. The difference is we now have another decade of evidence that points to how difficult it is for Washington to find the correct culture. Rivera is the latest to believe he can do it. Why?

“Nobody really knows, but I’ll tell you this: I believe in me, and I’ll bet on me,” Rivera said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Godspeed, Coach. Godspeed.

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