“Not enough can be said of Ron Rivera and the job that he has done.”
— Chris Myers, Fox Sports, during Sunday’s broadcast of Washington’s 23-15 win over San Francisco
“Ron Rivera, especially with everything he has dealt with personally this season, has to be a finalist for COY (Coach of the Year), right?”
— Former Dallas Cowboys vice president of personnel Gil Brandt, on the Washington coach
What has Ron Rivera done this year?
He has turned a dysfunctional football team with a 3-13 record into the NFC East division leaders in December, with a 6-7 record following four straight wins and counting.
“Nobody, I repeat, nobody wants to play us right now,” Rivera told his team after their victory over the 49ers Sunday.
But everyone loves the Washington Football Team right now — even the architect of their hated rival.
Among the things that Rivera has done that enough can’t be said of, this is perhaps the greatest job he has done — he’s turned the most vilified franchise in football into the NFL’s teddy bear.
Between the Alex Smith comeback story, the absence of the polarizing team name, and Rivera’s personal battle against cancer, Washington has gone from despicable to admirable.
Even 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, who danced on Washington’s grave with glee following San Francisco’s 9-0 win last season, couldn’t manage a good hate of the organization that he believes backstabbed his father during his time in Rivera’s chair here.
“I respect the hell out of Ron Rivera,” Shanahan told reporters last week before they faced Washington. “I love [personnel chief] Kyle Smith and the guys that I know there. Those guys are doing a great job. I can tell they’re being led very well.”
Of course, all the talk about culture changing is very familiar to Kyle Shanahan. He had a front row seat for it in Washington in 2010, when his father Mike was credited for accomplishing the same thing in his first year as head coach and big boss.
Mike Shanahan took on Dan Snyder’s prized free agent acquisition, Albert Haynesworth, took over a depleted Vinny Cerrato roster and, following Jim Zorn’s 4-12 season the year before, took that Washington team to a 6-10 record. But of those 10 losses, six were by four points or less.
Mike Shanahan had this franchise going in the right direction. But owner Dan Snyder, general manager Bruce Allen and a $36 million salary cap penalty got in the way, and it imploded.
Nine years earlier, Marty Schottenheimer was doing the same thing, taking a team that started 0-5 and then went 8-3 in their final 11 games with Tony Banks and Kent Graham at quarterback. But owner Dan Snyder and his partner, Fred Drasner, got in the way, and Schottenheimer left after one year.
Are we looking at a repeat performance? Maybe not. Riverboat Ron has a different hand to play. First, there is no Bruce Allen to undermine what Rivera is trying to do. And Rivera inherited, at least on defense, a far better roster than Mike Shanahan did when he took over. Rivera’s first year here may result in a record of success that the average fan can compute without having to add up losing deficits.
Also, this is far deeper into Snyder’s tenure as ownership than 2001, when after three years, the owner still felt empowered to do battle with Schottenheimer, despite the coach’s success. The owner was still a curiosity then — not radioactive yet, as he has since become. And, of course, as we all know, Snyder is fighting for his life as an NFL owner, facing the results of a league investigation into multiple charges of sexual harassment by former employees detailed in series of Washington Post stories. He is also doing battle with his minority owners who want out.
Right now, Snyder is consumed with lawyers, not quarterbacks.
Finally, there is the personal factor. Neither Mike Shanahan nor Marty Schottenheimer were warm and fuzzy. Rivera is a likeable guy — and not in that goofball likeable way Jay Gruden was. He is both likeable and respected, among his peers, his players and even from afar, among fans throughout the league.
If the owner winds up being exiled from the NFL, then the path to a revival of Washington Football is clear. But even if Snyder manages to survive as owner of the Washington Football team, he may find that when all the legal dust settles and he returns to wondering who the football team should draft in the first round, Ron Rivera is untouchable — so popular that he is too powerful to cross.
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