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 Program 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-of-touch 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-year-old 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 front-office 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, self-deprecating, 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 two-deep, 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.
©2020 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.