Every Washington football coach in the last 20 years has used some version of that slogan, and yet failed to enact it. What Rivera has done for this rancid club with his first big victory on Sunday over the Philadelphia Eagles is to at least define and demonstrate the term. Rivera understands what a “culture” is: a society of shared, customary beliefs and behaviors so pervasive that they gain their own reflexive momentum. “The culture has got to be so strong that it doesn’t matter who the person is, it’s so strong that the players are absorbed into it,” Rivera said a few weeks ago in a phone chat on the subject. “They become part of it and do it willingly, and if they’re not willing, then the guys around them are so strong that they will pull them into the culture.”
What he describes is a kind of undertow created by good habits. That’s what you watched on Sunday as Washington came from 17 points down and scored 27 unanswered. Rivera somehow generated enough initial impelling energy to reverse Daniel Snyder’s years-long riptide of malignant mismanagement. A lot of CEOs of bad companies would like to know how Rivera did that.
If Rivera somehow becomes the first coach to permanently defeat the owner’s toxic drift, we will say that he started with a single building block: the ebullient, action-minded 25-year-old reserve corner Jimmy Moreland. Moreland was just a seventh-round pick in the 2019 draft. But Rivera hung on to him and pressed him into service to replace the injured $40-million free agent star, Kendall Fuller, and was rewarded with Moreland’s game-turning interception. “He works at his craft, he brings energy to it, and it’s an infectious personality, and that’s what you want on your football team,” Rivera said of Moreland. “He may not be the star player but he’s one of those significant role players who can impact your team.”
Now, when is the last time anyone in this curdled, star-obsessed organization called a kid taken with the 227th pick “significant,” and made him feel so important?
There it is. Culture change. It’s an absolute reversal of the old current, of unprincipled managerial duplicity, player pets, virtue punished, and mistakes allowed to slide, of flourishing double standards and no organizational agreement on anything except not to serve the players dog for dinner.
When you listen to really strong executives or coaches talk about how they implement good culture, you can hear the difference between the real thing and sloganeering impostors like, say, former team president Bruce Allen. A byproduct of the pandemic-induced shutdown this spring was that for a brief time, some superb coaches had the time to talk more relaxedly about their trade. Two of them, Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks and Steve Kerr of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, did a fascinatingly instructive podcast entitled “Flying Coach,” in which they swapped notes on how they’ve cultivated winning locker rooms.
“Everyone talks about culture, how do you build a culture,” Kerr said. “We’ve all been in a gym where there’s a big sign that says something like ‘Only the Strong Survive.’ And we’re all, like, what does that even mean, right?”
Kerr got an object lesson in culture building from Carroll in 2014. Kerr was just about to embark on his career as head coach of the Warriors, when he went to Seattle to observe Carroll run his team. Though Kerr had played for the matchless Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, he wanted a broader organizational perspective. For three days he watched Carroll lead the Seahawks through practices that were so high energy they seemed like barely organized chaos, players working with such unbounded intensity “they practically bounced,” Kerr recalled.
At the end of the three days Carroll asked him “So how you gonna coach your team?”
Kerr replied, “Like, what offense am I going to run?”
“No, no, that stuff doesn’t matter,” Carroll replied, waving it away.
Kerr thought, I just spent two years trying to design an offense and Pete Carroll just told me none of it matters.
Carroll said, “Listen. Go back to your hotel tonight and think about, what are the most important values to you, and write them down. Who are you, what are you all about and what are your uncompromising principles? What are you going to stand by, and what do you stand for?”
They were the same questions that Bill Walsh had once asked Carroll, when he was a wounded young coach who had been fired in 1995 by the New York Jets after just one season. Carroll landed as an assistant with the San Francisco 49ers, where he spent hours with Walsh, who though retired, was still a consultant to George Seifert’s staff. The things Walsh was most adamant about teaching Carroll were not particulars of the West Coast offense, Carroll said, but rather the underlying principles of creating a collective ethic.
“What happens when you’re in camp and some guy won’t show up for a meeting,” Carroll said to Kerr. “Or he’ll be late. Or he’s gonna spout off at one of your players. Millions of things are gonna happen, and it has nothing to do with Xs and Os. Any time you deal with a situation with players, you are making a statement about who and what you are. And they are watching you: Do you believe in something, or are you just dealing with it randomly?”
Kerr went back to his hotel and wrote. And what he wrote was that he wanted his team to play with joy — so much joy that it would overwhelm opponents. What he took from Carroll, he says, was “authenticity.” The Seahawks’ energy was a reflection of Carroll’s convictions, not some phony wall poster. “Everything that happens in practice, everything they feel when walk into gym or field has to be real and the values important to you as a coach have to come alive,” Kerr said. “And that’s how culture is defined, when players feel that authenticity from you, and now there is something real and it starts to build.”
Walsh once wrote that a winning coach has “a “conceptual blueprint for action.” Carroll and Kerr have that, and you sense that Rivera has it too. He knows what he’s about and what he wants. He’s exacting, emphatic, and utterly consistent in what he prizes and what he won’t tolerate, a stickler for technique, who had some tension with his defenders in camp because he demanded they “set your hand a certain way.” That’s because it’s a building block: technique breeds confidence, and soon after follows a consistent pride of performance.
The next phase for Rivera will be harder: to build “sustainable” culture, he says. But Rivera has a strange backhanded advantage over the other men who tried to change this outfit over the last 20 years: For the moment, the owner is so busy with the scandal from his lousy old culture that he can’t interfere with the new culture too much. Rivera is the centralized voice and power in the organization.
“I kinda felt like they got it,” Rivera said Monday. “One good play begot another good play. Then another, and next we’re rolling. If we can a develop sustainable winning culture … we can make things happen and create the type of environment and culture people want to be part of.”