ASHBURN, Va. — It wasn’t just quarterbacks that Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera changed recently; for many, it was his message that also took multiple turns. Fans and some media criticized Rivera for mixed messages. But Rivera said that’s just the way he coaches, going by instincts and switching plans when needed.
“It does look a little inconsistent, but the consistency is that I’m going to make them based on what I know, on my gut feeling on things,” Rivera said. “Hopefully, they’re good decisions. If they’re not, we’ll know and I’ll take responsibility, that’s for doggone sure.”
In the past couple of weeks, Rivera was criticized for changing his message — from supporting quarterback Dwayne Haskins after his three-interception game in Week 3, vowing to endure his growing pains, to benching him a week later.
In truth, multiple sources say there had been concerns before the benching and some in the organization predicted it would happen soon — if Haskins didn’t improve in certain areas, from on-field production to off-field preparation during the week. Those concerns, sources say, had been communicated previously. As Rivera later told NBC Sports Washington, it was an 11-week evaluation, not a four-game one. But to the fan base and some media, based on his comments, the move seemed rash.
Part of the switch, too, Rivera said, was seeing a chance to contend in a weakened NFC East. Prior to that change, Washington was perceived as strictly rebuilding and willing to be patient with Haskins. And before benching Haskins, Rivera said there was a cutoff point at which he’d know a move was necessary. When asked Wednesday whether there was a cutoff point for Kyle Allen, Rivera said there wasn’t — and that there wasn’t one for Haskins, either.
“Can they change? Absolutely,” Rivera said of his thinking. “That’s part of my prerogative as a head coach is that I can change my mind because if I’m wrong, I’ll admit it. That’s one thing I’ve told you guys is that I’ll take the responsibility because I’m the one making the decisions.”
Rivera said that Hall of Fame coach and former broadcaster John Madden influenced his way of coaching. In his first two seasons with Carolina, Rivera was 5-13 in games decided by eight points or less. He said that after talking with Madden he reviewed why the team had a poor record in close games. Rivera said that oftentimes he went against his gut. Madden told him to rely on those instincts, honed by having played and coached in the NFL.
“I went back and looked at them and there were some decisions that, now, I wouldn’t have made,” Rivera said. “But I learned. Those are hard knocks. They were things that I had to get and understand and learn as a head coach. I think that’s part of what drives my decision-making now.”
That also leads him to change his mind when he deems it necessary, whether in games or during the week. Or to fit the situation. In Washington’s first six games, he was aggressive on fourth down, going for it 10 times and converting eight; both are tied for third most in the NFL. He went for a two-point conversion in the final minute vs. the New York Giants, but Washington failed to convert and lost 20-19.
In two-score losses to Arizona and Baltimore, Rivera declined to use his timeouts late, saying he did not want to extend the game for fear of players getting hurt after a summer with no preseason games. On social media and talk radio, Rivera was criticized for failing to try to win — pointing to fourth-down calls as proof of inconsistency. In his mind, the situations were not the same: Washington had a legitimate chance to win vs. the Giants; it would have needed two touchdowns in the final few minutes against both Arizona and Baltimore.
“One thing that I’ve learned is you have to treat everybody fairly, but you’re not going to be able to treat everybody the same,” said Rivera, who played nine years in the NFL and has coached in the league since 1997. “Well, it’s the same thing with our situations. You treat each situation as it comes along, and that’s kind of where we are. So, when I get into those situations, I will go by my gut. I will go by the feel. I’m going to draw on my experience … my fiduciary responsibility is to do things that are best for this organization that I believe is going to help us going forward. That’s why I make the decisions that I make.”
But Rivera also said the message he gives his players is different from the one he delivers to the media.
“There are certain things that shouldn’t be said to you guys. There are certain things that shouldn’t be said to the players,” Rivera said. “So, as I go through this, it’s a balancing act and it’s a delicate balancing act sometimes. That’s part of the responsibility is that making sure the right message is out there.”
Right tackle Morgan Moses echoed what other players have said, calling Rivera a breath of fresh air because of what they say is his transparency and penchant for “shooting straight.”
“He listens to us on things we see and want to do as a team,” Moses said last week. “There is no decision he makes and just blatantly makes it and doesn’t include us in it. … When he told us about Dwayne’s situation, he sat in front of the team and said some things would be changing. …When a coach like that is honest and upfront about it, obviously it’s a hard pill to swallow when someone is telling you you’re not doing this. But you respect that person; instead of someone else telling you he’s telling you to your face. It’s important to have a coach like that. We can talk to him and he can talk to us and we can get feedback so we can move forward.”