Ron Rivera wanted to see how his players would handle the spotlight.
The NFL schedule makers shut out Washington of prime time this season, but they did give the team a Thanksgiving showdown with the Dallas Cowboys — “about as big a stage as it gets,” the Washington coach said. First place in the NFC East was on the line, too.
So on Friday, a day after his team had smacked the Cowboys in a 41-16 victory, Rivera said it was “really cool” to see how his players kept their composure in the moment. After a close first half in which Washington led only by four points, the team dominated in the second half — humiliating the Cowboys in the process.
For Rivera, the victory was a sign that his team is “learning how to win” — a term the coach has used repeatedly this season. At the same time, Rivera was measured in discussing the win, well aware that there are still five games left in the regular season.
Rivera said his team has yet to settle on an identity. He said his players have shown they can overcome a poor start, but added he’d rather his players “not have to take a few punches” before they start to come back.
“I’ve been a part of teams where, from the opening kickoff to the final whistle, just dominate,” Rivera said. “That’s what I’d like to see us do.”
Rivera said he saw situations in the first quarter against Dallas that, if Washington had capitalized on, could have broken open the game sooner.
Through 11 games, Washington has yet to score on an opening possession and the team has only scored 96 points in the first half — sixth-fewest in the league. By contrast, Washington’s 145 second-half points ranks seventh-best.
But Rivera is also seeing positives — indications that players are starting to understand what is required of them. He calls these “a-ha” moments, and says he’s noticed them at different times. Rivera has said that he’ll view the culture that he’s trying to build as a success when players start to start to echo his message.
That appears to be happening. On Thursday, safety Jeremy Reaves noted how in the third quarter, players recognized the significance of Terry McLaurin’s chase down of linebacker Jaylon Smith to prevent a pick-6. When the defense took the field, Reaves said the unit was determined to hold Dallas to a field goal — and it did.
That stand, Reaves said, is the kind that gives a team an identity, that “could build a culture within our defense right now.”
Quarterback Alex Smith said it was important for Washington to be able to win in a variety of fashions. Young teams need to have experiences to draw from and those moments can help in the future, he said.
Rivera agreed. But now, Rivera said his team must maintain focus in the weeks ahead, starting with the Pittsburgh Steelers next Sunday.
Pittsburgh is the NFL’s lone undefeated team, and that provides a different stage that Washington has to show it can handle.
“I tell them: ‘Be careful. In prosperity, everyone’s your friend. In tough times, where are your friends?’” Rivera said. “Those are little detail things that we’ll talk about and we’ll point out. … It’s not about your reputation, it’s about your actions.”
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