Monday, January 4, 2021

As ugly as the 20-14 victory Sunday night may have been, Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera accomplished what he wanted to do this season — win the NFC East and make the playoffs.

If nothing else, it solidifies his power and popularity for the never-ending fight against the dark forces of owner Dan Snyder.

That’s both interesting and important. No one yet has been able to consolidate enough power as the coach of this team to tell Snyder to stick to his business and leave the football to the professionals — and survive. But Rivera may have the strongest hand to play.

He came into the job from Carolina as an immensely respected and well-liked figure in football and has done nothing since taking the Washington job but win over more fans and friends.

In a year when the division was winnable for anyone, Rivera recognized that early and guided this team to its ninth NFC East title since the divisions were formed in 1972 and the first since Jay Gruden did it in 2015 — his second year as Washington coach.

Winning that division title ultimately didn’t do Slap Happy Jay much good inside the puzzle palace, but there were a number of different factors that held Gruden back.

There had been a lot of damage done in that first year in the fight with the owner over his chosen quarterback at the time, Robert Griffin III. There was, of course, the presence of the Prince of Darkness, Bruce Allen — a burden for any coach trying to repair the damaged culture.

And Gruden was simply not Ron Rivera.

He never had the presence Rivera has. He was never taken as seriously — not by the owner, not by the players and not by the fans.

Rivera has had success right from the start, his initial season. Warped success, with a 7-9 record, but his team is playing Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday in the first round of the NFL playoffs.

For this damaged franchise, that qualifies as success.

If you listen to the narrative across the NFL about Rivera and this team, you also hear about something else that has strengthened the veteran coach’s standing: his personal battle against cancer. He is, rightfully, so, a sympathetic figure.

Rivera‘s story, the inspiring comeback of Alex Smith, the decision to jettison the polarizing nickname — all of it has combined to win over the hearts of not just football fans, but the public at large. All of it coming at a time when the owner has been dragged into a widespread sexual harassment scandal and a messy internal fight for control with his minority-share business partners.

Deodorizing the franchise’s dysfunctional stench in 2020 is a greater accomplishment by Rivera than anything that’s happened on the field.

It’s not all lilacs and rosewater yet. Beating an Eagles team without numerous starters and nothing to play for was far more difficult than it should have been — a Philadelphia team that, with a victory, would have given the 6-10 New York Giants the NFC East crown.

Eagles coach Doug Pederson must have been a Rivera fan, because he appeared to do all he could to help Washington win that season finale.

When his team had a chance to take a 14-10 lead into the locker room at halftime, Pederson ran three pass plays — all falling incomplete — that, with less than two minutes left in the half, used up all of 20 seconds tops. When Washington got the ball back, it had enough time for Smith to march the team down the field for the go-ahead 17-14 touchdown before the half.

Then, when his team had a chance to tie the game at 17-17, on fourth down on the Washington four-yard line, Pederson went for the touchdown and pass from Jalen Hurts missed an open Quez Watkins with two minutes left in the third quarter.

Finally, Pederson pulled Hurts from the game for little-used backup and former Washington draft choice Nate Sudfeld in the fourth quarter, even though his team was still only down by a 17-14 score.

Hurts’ passing numbers were unimpressive, but his two scores came on runs and his mobility created problems for the Washington defense. Sudfeld would have been more at ease in the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden.

I think what Pederson did qualifies as election fraud.

Still, it was the Eagles, not the Washington Football Team, that looked lost on Sunday night. It was the Philadelphia coach, three years removed from a Super Bowl championship, who was being roasted on Philadelphia sports talk radio Monday, not the Washington coach.

And it was the Eagles who got to go home to their families and leave the 2020 COVID-19 season behind, while Washington will host its first playoff game since 2015 before cardboard cutouts at Ghost Town Field.

“This one’s special just because of how hard it was, how tough it was, how it’s been on the guys, the organization.” Rivera told reporters after the win. “There’s a great group of young men in there and we’re trying to do things the right way.”

Others have tried — and failed. Rivera took a big step toward fighting that battle on his own terms Sunday night.

Listen to Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan and the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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