Hours after firing head coach Jay Gruden at 5 a.m. on October 7, Washington team president Bruce Allen held a press conference. As he addressed the media, Allen said, “You know, the culture is actually damn good.” Even by Washington’s current standards, it was a bold attempt at spin.
Washington went 3-13 this season, its worst finish since 2013. The team’s best player, left tackle Trent Williams, gave up half of his $10 million salary this year and refused to play after a dispute with the team’s medical staff about whether it properly informed him of a cancerous growth on his head. Attendance at Washington games has cratered, and the franchise is the least popular it has been in D.C. in 70 years.
Perhaps team owner Dan Snyder finally realized how dire the franchise’s situation is, because this week he made two of the most significant changes to Washington football in years. First, Snyder fired Allen, who was 62-100-1 in 10 seasons with Washington. And on Tuesday, he reached an agreement to hire former Panthers coach Ron Rivera as the team’s next head coach, bringing in one of the most respected people in pro football to run one of the league’s least respected franchises. The deal is reportedly for five years. Together, these developments represent the most work Snyder has done to cleanse Washington’s toxic team culture in at least a decade.
Rivera takes over a team that’s in a low-boil turmoil, and he’s the perfect candidate to calm things down. He was revered in Carolina, where he went 76-63 in nine seasons and led the Panthers to Super Bowl 50. Even after he was fired in early December, many Panthers players spoke about him in glowing terms. “Ron means a lot to a lot of guys in here for a lot of things outside of the football,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen told reporters.
Panthers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was asked on Monday what he would tell Washington players who are about to get Rivera as their coach. “The greatest thing in their careers is about to happen,” McCoy told The Athletic’s Jourdan Rodrigue.
Now, with the ink drying on Rivera’s fresh contract (or, if he signed the deal on an iPad, the screen still loading), the overhaul begins. Washington has the no. 2 pick in this year’s draft, and Rivera will have to work with whoever Snyder brings in at GM to make the team’s selection. Yahoo’s Charles Robinson reported Monday that even with all the attractive QB options in the 2020 class, Snyder is sold on Dwayne Haskins as the team’s passer of the future. (Haskins went to the same high school as Snyder’s son and said before the draft the two are “pretty good friends.”) Rivera, a former defensive coordinator, may want Washington to draft Ohio State pass rusher Chase Young, who’s one of the best defensive prospects in years. If that happens, Young would join a line that has three other former first-round picks, defensive end Montez Sweat, defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne, and defensive end Jonathan Allen.
Add to the mix Haskins, who’ll be entering his second season next year, and breakout receiver Terry McLaurin (both of whom also came from Ohio State), and Washington has some solid young talent to build around.
Rivera’s job will be to create a positive culture around all that talent, and it seems like he’ll have some help. Washington’s locker room is full of former Alabama players—all of whom are used to winning—and they’ve minced no words about what it will take to get this organization back on track. After a 31-15 loss to Chicago in Week 3, Jonathan Allen summarized Washington’s situation.
“We’re supposed to be the best athletes in the world,” Allen said. “If you don’t have the mental toughness to stay focused after three weeks in a 17-week regular season, I don’t know what to tell you. Each guy has to be held accountable and just take it from there. There ain’t no magic sauce to get this thing turned around. It’s just doing the little things right. And that’s what we’ve gotta do. … We gonna circle the wagons in this motherfucker and we’re gonna get shit right. Believe that.”
It was a refreshingly honest attitude from one of the team’s young leaders, and also the kind of mentality that Rivera can work with. Washington’s team culture may not be “damn good” yet, but it’s about to get a whole lot better.