Why coach the Red­skins?

Ex-Bears LB, Pan­thers coach looks to turn around Red­skins

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Brad Biggs

For­mer Bears line­backer Ron Rivera be­lieves he can turn around a fran­chise that has be­come toxic.

ASH­BURN, Va. — Ron Rivera is un­pack­ing boxes in his of­fice at Red­skins Park — a space so large he’s al­most a lit­tle em­bar­rassed — look­ing to make every­thing just right.

Af­ter nine years as coach of the Pan­thers, the for­mer Bears line­backer (1984-92) col­lected a lot of things, some sen­ti­men­tal, some in­spi­ra­tional and plenty that stir mem­o­ries. Six weeks af­ter the Red­skins hired him, he’s still ar­rang­ing the room to make it feel like home.

The walls are mostly bare, so as he care­fully tapes mo­ti­va­tional quotes from his­tor­i­cal fig­ures to a white board that stretches the length of the room and in­cludes a depth chart in the left cor­ner near his mas­sive tele­vi­sion, there’s plenty of room for X’s and O’s.

There’s a lot of mil­i­tary mem­o­ra­bilia, most sent by vet­er­ans ap­pre­cia­tive of Rivera’s long­stand­ing sup­port. He’s sort­ing through patches, pho­to­graphs and trin­kets, each with a story be­hind it, align­ing them in a tall glass case along a wall at the en­trance. There are hand­writ­ten let­ters from vet­er­ans and the fam­i­lies of fallen sol­diers thank­ing him for his role in TAPS (Tragedy As­sis­tance Pro

gram for Sur­vivors). He takes time to read through them.

Atop a shelf along one wall, there’s a metal lunch­box his wife, Stephanie, gave him in Carolina to serve as a re­minder of his early coach­ing days as an as­sis­tant un­der Andy Reid in Philadel­phia. The Ea­gles had a safety, Tim Hauck, near the end of a long ca­reer, and an op­po­nent was jaw­ing with him pregame. Hauck looked at the player and said, “Bring your lunch­box.”

“Then we pro­ceeded to kick the (crap) out of them,” Rivera says. “I was look­ing for a theme when peo­ple came into the of­fice, and Stephanie said, ‘Well, how about “bring your lunch­box”?’ That’s kind of been my theme.”

Fam­ily pho­tos are dis­played on shelves, and a stack of frames sits in a chair. One is a photo of him with Walter Pay­ton, whom Rivera cred­its with help­ing him break into coach­ing as a qual­ity con­trol as­sis­tant with the Bears in 1997.

There’s an “In the Bleach­ers” comic strip by Steve Moore in which a mas­sively un­der­sized foot­ball player says, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can …” while lined up across from a men­ac­ing gi­ant.

“When I first started coach­ing, that was about be­liev­ing in what you are ca­pa­ble of,” Rivera says. “And that had sig­nif­i­cance for me.”

Then there are two car­toons drawn by the late Richard McMur­rin, the su­per­in­ten­dent at Halas Hall in the 1980s. One reads “Pan­cho Villa Rides Again” and de­picts Rivera re­turn­ing an in­ter­cep­tion of John El­way in a 1987 game at Mile High Sta­dium. McMur­rin did weekly car­toons, some sar­cas­tic, and posted them through­out the build­ing.

“You wanted to show up in those,” Rivera says. “But Richard did a hell of a job ed­i­to­ri­al­iz­ing.”

As Rivera ar­ranges what’s most im­por­tant and what helped shape him dur­ing a nearly 35-year run in the NFL, it helps ex­plain how he’s here, hav­ing signed a five-year con­tract to work for owner Dan Sny­der, who has over­seen the pre­cip­i­tous de­cline of what was once one of the league’s marquee fran­chises.

Since buy­ing the team in 1999, Sny­der’s Red­skins have two play­off wins in five ap­pear­ances and a 142-193-1 record. Sny­der has been through seven head coaches — Rivera is the eighth — and two in­terim coaches.

A 50-year run of con­sec­u­tive sell­outs ended with the 2018 sea­son opener, and pho­tos of huge sec­tions of empty seats at FedEx Field have been a so­cial me­dia sta­ple dur­ing home games the last two years. In Sny­der’s 21 sea­sons, the Red­skins have used 22 start­ing quar­ter­backs, a fig­ure ex­ceeded by only the Browns (30) and Bears (23).

The Red­skins spiraled even fur­ther dur­ing a 10-year run for team Pres­i­dent Bruce Allen, fin­ish­ing last in the NFC East five times be­fore he was fired Dec. 30. Last year left tackle Trent Williams sat out the sea­son, claim­ing the team failed to di­ag­nose a can­cer­ous growth on his head. The Red­skins have made moves to change the staff, and Rivera is work­ing to bring Williams back.

Allen’s ten­ure was marked by dis­as­ter and frac­tures within the or­ga­ni­za­tion. Once source de­scribed a time dur­ing Mike Shana­han’s coach­ing stint when play­ers and coaches were as­sem­bling on a prac­tice field for a team photo and Allen came strolling out to take his place. Shana­han promptly sent him away.

Allen had deep ties to the or­ga­ni­za­tion — his fa­ther, Ge­orge, was a Hall of Fame coach in Washington from 1971 to ’77 — but that didn’t spare him any crit­i­cism. Sny­der con­tin­ued to em­ploy him dur­ing a calami­tous stretch punc­tu­ated by los­ing and out-oftouch com­ments, such as when Allen said the or­ga­ni­za­tion was “win­ning off the field” af­ter a 4-12 fin­ish in 2014 and “the cul­ture is ac­tu­ally damn good” when Rivera’s full-time pre­de­ces­sor, Jay Gru­den, was fired Oct. 7.

More ac­cu­rately, the cul­ture has been toxic, all of which leads one to won­der why the 58-yearold Rivera, a two-time coach of the year in Carolina, re­moved him­self from con­sid­er­a­tion for other open­ings by jump­ing at the chance to join the Red­skins.

“What I love is the op­por­tu­nity, the chal­lenge,” Rivera says while pulling from a shelf a hu­mi­dor that in­cludes three Cuban cigars — two Bo­li­vars and a Mon­te­cristo — he pur­chased dur­ing the Bears’ pre­sea­son trip to Dublin in 1997.

“It’s funny be­cause ev­ery­one kept ask­ing, ‘Why did you take the job so quickly?’ It ain’t about the money. I re­ally thought about it. I could’ve waited on the Giants. I could’ve waited on Cleve­land. I could’ve waited on Dal­las. Those are the teams we kept hear­ing (had in­ter­est). This is about the fit, and the more I lis­tened, the more I looked at it, the more I looked at the ros­ter, that’s what im­pressed me the most, the more I knew.

“I came in (to ini­tial talks) with some trep­i­da­tion, but as I’ve got­ten to know Mr. Sny­der, I un­der­stand re­ally all he wants to do is fig­ure out how to win, and that is pretty ex­cit­ing.”

What Sny­der laid out for Rivera is a new power struc­ture for the or­ga­ni­za­tion, a dy­namic that will make the Red­skins a coach-cen­tric fran­chise with Rivera hav­ing con­sid­er­able con­trol, more power than he pos­sessed with the Pan­thers.

He will over­see more frontof­fice moves af­ter the draft but al­ready has brought Rob Rogers with him from Carolina as se­nior vice pres­i­dent of foot­ball ad­min­is­tra­tion in charge of the salary cap and con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions. Kyle Smith was pro­moted to vice pres­i­dent of player per­son­nel in Jan­uary, and if a gen­eral man­ager is hired, Rivera will be the one with the most say in the mat­ter.

This clears out one pit­fall that has plagued the Red­skins, who have had too many cooks in the kitchen at times with coaches and per­son­nel men who didn’t al­ways have an align­ing vi­sion when it came to build­ing the ros­ter. Gone are the days when Sny­der flexed his check­book to lure ag­ing su­per­stars or over­priced free agents (see Deion San­ders, Bruce Smith, Al­bert Hayneswort­h, Adam Archuleta, Ant­waan Ran­dle El and oth­ers).

Sny­der’s fas­ci­na­tion with “shiny ob­jects,” as one for­mer Red­skins em­ployee termed it, hasn’t steered the fran­chise off course in re­cent years, but there is some feel­ing he made his pref­er­ence known at times. Last year the Red­skins drafted Ohio State quar­ter­back Dwayne Hask­ins in the first round, a move that per­haps was not in line with the wishes of the coach­ing staff.

The flip side is if Sny­der is com­fort­able al­low­ing Rivera to build the bus and drive it — and will­ing to be a pas­sen­ger — it’s a po­ten­tial dream setup. But that’s a big if for an owner who has em­ployed Norv Turner, Marty Schot­ten­heimer, Steve Spurrier, Joe Gibbs, Shana­han, Jim Zorn and Gru­den as head coaches, with Terry Ro­biskie and Bill Cal­la­han serv­ing in­terim terms.

Rivera’s no stranger to chal­lenges in the job that have noth­ing to do with the prod­uct on the field. He was the front man for the Pan­thers when owner Jerry Richard­son was the sub­ject of a sex­ual ha­rass­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion in 2017. With the owner nowhere to be seen, Rivera was the one to field the heat publicly.

“I was the face,” he says. “That’s who I was for the or­ga­ni­za­tion, so I had to ac­cept the re­spon­si­bil­ity. I’m the one who should get up there, stand in front of ev­ery­one and take it, and I did. That’s just how I saw it. I will not shy away from the re­spon­si­bil­ity, and I am go­ing to be as hon­est as I can.”

Be­fore Richard­son’s down­fall, which led him to sell the Pan­thers to David Tep­per, Rivera dealt with a di­aled-in owner who re­quested reg­u­lar meet­ings, the kind of back­ground that will serve him well with Sny­der.

“Mr. Richard­son was there daily, but he re­ally wasn’t in­tru­sive,” Rivera said. “He just wanted to know. … The big­gest thing I learned is that you have to be pre­pared. You have to have an an­swer, and if you don’t have an an­swer, get one and give it.”

Sny­der reached out to Rivera less than a week af­ter the Pan­thers fired him on Dec. 3. Both sides had plenty of ques­tions, and the process took off quickly, with Rivera con­tact­ing coaches and play­ers who had been through Red­skins Park to get their opin­ions.

The con­sen­sus was Sny­der is driven to win even if he has had such a dif­fi­cult time do­ing so. Sny­der has long been gen­er­ous with as­sis­tant coaches, and while there are count­less sto­ries of hap­haz­ard er­rors, he also has al­lowed em­ploy­ees use of his pri­vate jets when in need and has flown play­ers around the coun­try for med­i­cal ap­point­ments. He doesn’t skimp when it comes to putting a prod­uct on the field.

“Mr. Sny­der was con­trite, self­dep­re­cat­ing, very up­front and very hon­est,” Rivera says. “He laid it all out in front of me. That re­ally made me feel and be­lieve that he knows his mis­takes and he doesn’t want to re­peat them.”

Through mul­ti­ple meet­ings and dis­cus­sions that to­taled 34 hours, Rivera re­viewed the quar­ter­back de­vel­op­ment plan he helped cre­ate in Carolina for Cam New­ton with an eye to­ward Hask­ins. A meet­ing with Gibbs, whom Rivera had met mul­ti­ple times in Char­lotte, crys­tal­lized his think­ing re­gard­ing the job. Be­fore the sea­son ended, Rivera and Sny­der were com­fort­able with one an­other.

Sny­der in­tro­duced his coach at a Jan. 2 news con­fer­ence, open­ing his re­marks by say­ing, “Happy Thanks­giv­ing,” per­haps mix­ing up the new year with his coach­ing search, which had kicked into gear around Thanks­giv­ing.

Rivera, in a gray suit, white dress shirt and bur­gundy tie, wasn’t a minute into his open­ing state­ment when he ad­mit­ted the ques­tion most had was why he picked the Red­skins. He cited Sny­der’s plan to re­struc­ture the or­ga­ni­za­tion around the coach, and he was off.

Now Rivera pre­pares to the lead the or­ga­ni­za­tion to the scout­ing com­bine this week in In­di­anapo­lis. The Red­skins hold the No. 2 pick in the draft and pos­si­bly are eye­ing Ohio State de­fen­sive end Chase Young.

Plenty of ros­ter re­work­ing is needed, but Rivera likes Hask­ins’ up­side while ad­mit­ting, “We re­ally don’t know what is go­ing to hap­pen at quar­ter­back.” The more Rivera looks at the twodeep, the more he likes the young core, slid­ing back the white board to re­veal the depth chart on the wall.

“Young guy, lots of ex­pe­ri­ence,” he says over and over as he points to play­ers on both sides of the ball. “The young nu­cleus is there. We just have to put the right pieces in place. I know I sound overly op­ti­mistic, but you know me, I’ve al­ways been an op­ti­mistic guy. The first year and a half, two years, they’re go­ing to be hard. But at the end of the day, I am happy as heck right now.”

Over din­ner at a farm-to-ta­ble restau­rant in Re­ston, Va., near the ex­ec­u­tive apart­ment he’s us­ing un­til he and Stephanie close on their new home in Great Falls, Va., next month, Rivera re­mains ex­cited about the ros­ter. He points to youth in the front seven he be­lieves is bet­ter suited to the 4-3 base scheme he will use than the 3-4 align­ment the Red­skins have been play­ing.

There’s a loom­ing sta­dium is­sue in Washington with Sny­der seek­ing to re­place FedEx Field, and the head­quar­ters is smaller and older than most. But those are is­sues above and be­yond Rivera. His fo­cus is on chang­ing the cul­ture, ev­ery­one’s catch­phrase in the NFL.

“Every time I have guys come in, I tell them: ‘It’s go­ing to be hard. It’s not go­ing to be easy. But I need you all. I can’t do it my­self,’ ” Rivera says. “Just be­cause they hired me doesn’t mean the cul­ture changes au­to­mat­i­cally. All it means is I am go­ing to come in and im­ple­ment the things I be­lieve in. ‘I need your help. I need you to buy in. I need you to be­lieve in what I am try­ing to do.’

“We have to change the per­cep­tion. That’s just the way it is. If you don’t, it will stick with you.”

Long­time Red­skin Brian Mitchell, the NFL’s all-time re­turn yardage leader and a fix­ture on sports talk ra­dio and TV in Washington, has been im­pressed so far. Mitchell was fin­ish­ing his ca­reer in Philadel­phia when Rivera was work­ing for the Ea­gles un­der Andy Reid.

“A lot of fans were up­set with the fact that Bruce was around,” Mitchell said. “They didn’t like Bruce, you know, ‘Win­ning off the field,’ and ‘We’re close,’ all those types of things that he said that rubbed peo­ple the wrong way, and they stopped sup­port­ing it. Dan made those moves, hired a guy that is rep­utable, peo­ple love him, and I think things have started to change.

“Fans un­der­stand the re­la­tion­ship he had with his play­ers in Carolina. They un­der­stand the fact he is go­ing to hold peo­ple ac­count­able, and then Joe Gibbs ‘amen’d’ it, so they love it. For the last six to eight years, there has been no ac­count­abil­ity on this foot­ball team. And Ron is a guy that is go­ing to hold peo­ple ac­count­able. Not many coaches have that bal­ance where they can kick you in the ass but also say, ‘Good job,’ you know what I mean?”

Rivera isn’t naive and rec­og­nizes time and pa­tience are re­quired. He hopes to spark in­ter­est in the re­gion for a team that used to brag about its sea­son ticket wait­ing list, long ago ex­hausted.

“It’s been awe­some so far,” he says. “We go out to din­ner and peo­ple come up: ‘We’re so ex­cited you’re here.’ I al­ways tell them: ‘It’s go­ing to be hard, and I’m go­ing to need your help now. Go­ing to need you to come back.’ That’s why I’m telling ev­ery­body, ‘We aren’t do­ing this by our­selves.’ I’m try­ing to be hon­est. I am not sug­ar­coat­ing any­thing.”

Ap­pear­ing at a lun­cheon for team spon­sors in Mi­ami dur­ing Su­per Bowl week, Rivera gave a speech and then took five ques­tions.

“Thanks, folks,” Rivera said. “I’ve got to run, but I want you to keep one last thing in mind: Happy Thanks­giv­ing.”

He shook the hands of Sny­der and his wife, Tanya, and walked out.

ALEX BRAN­DON/AP

New Red­skins coach Ron Rivera and his wife, Stephanie, pose dur­ing a news con­fer­ence Jan. 2.

CHARLES CHERNEY/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

For­mer Bears lineback­ers Ron Rivera, left, and Mike Sin­gle­tary hug af­ter a last-sec­ond blocked field-goal at­tempt against the Giants in 1991.

JIM PRISCHING/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Ron Rivera was de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor when the Bears went to the Su­per Bowl fol­low­ing the 2006 sea­son.

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