“There really is no confusion,” Rivera said Thursday. “The young man’s ill, and because he’s feeling ill, we don’t want him to come into the building and spread whatever flu-like symptoms he has.”
There’s a clear message. Got it?
But even before this string of Haskins absences — which, gastrointestinal issue or not, seems to make it less likely that he regains his role as the starter, much less as the quarterback of the future — Rivera’s first season as the coach of his new team has grown to mirror the run-up to it. Given the novel coronavirus pandemic, the change of the name, the reports of a sexist culture throughout the franchise and Rivera’s cancer diagnosis, that was chaotic. For Rivera, such mayhem might be new territory. For Washington football, it’s a day in the life.
During all that unprecedented prelude, though, Rivera held the room. He was an adult. He handled himself with dignity and class. He gave the distinct impression he would restore order where there had been none.
But five weeks into the season, where the actual football is concerned, is there order or just more chaos? On Thursday, Rivera gave, to my mind, the clearest explanation yet of how he’s approaching the period between now and Thanksgiving, a stretch in which Washington will play six games against four teams with a combined record of 4-14-1.
“We’re going to go for it,” Rivera said in his daily Zoom meeting with reporters. “And that’s all I’m doing right now. I’ve changed my approach to it. A big part of it is looking at the schedule from the beginning, saying, ‘These first four games are going to be very interesting, but we’re developing. These next four, based on where we are, we have a chance.’ We’ll see what happens.”
Still, the coach who created the idea that he was building a stable foundation now has made that foundation seem more precarious — and voluntarily so. If, in August, you were told that Rivera would hold on to his timeouts near the end of back-to-back two-score games because he wanted to develop his football team and stave off injuries, then bench Haskins in favor of turnover machine Kyle Allen to pursue a division title, then keep a nicked-but-cleared-to-play Allen out of the second half of a 10-point game in favor of a 36-year-old with a titanium rod in his leg and then explicitly outline how he changed his approach because he thought his 1-4 team could reach the top of the NFC East, you could reasonably ask: Develop or win, Ron? In October 2020, what’s the priority?
When asked last month about holding his timeouts as if he could deposit them in a bank and gain interest, Rivera said, “My concern is about the development of this football team, not appeasing anybody that has an opinion.”
The answer seems to be both. And that’s not only hard to pull off, but it’s a hard sell to a fan base that wants, for once, a consistent message.
“Things are going to be hard,” Rivera said Thursday. “I’ve said it from the beginning: This is not going to be easy. I’m not just going to [say], just because I’m showing up, we’re going to win the division. We’ve got to work through this. There’s a lot of things to grow through.
“And you have to keep playing, and you have to keep playing the guys that you think are going to help you going forward. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re going to play guys that we think can help us.”
That one phrase — “You have to keep playing the guys you think are going to help you going forward” — is just so damning for Haskins. Rivera benched Haskins last week, after the 2019 first-round draft pick recorded the first 300-yard passing game of his career. When he did, he said it was with an eye on the weak upcoming schedule and because Allen had experience in the team’s system with Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner with Carolina. Now it’s clear by Rivera’s own words that Haskins is part of neither the present nor the future, whether this stomach bug goes away or not.
Benching Haskins is both Rivera’s prerogative and — if he believes he can’t or won’t develop — his responsibility. But it’s also Rivera’s responsibility to create clear messaging that generates faith in what he’s trying to build here. When he benches Haskins in favor of Allen because, as he said, Allen gives the team a better chance to win but then holds Allen on the sideline in favor of ineffectual veteran Alex Smith — coming back from a catastrophic leg injury two years ago — even though Allen had been cleared to play, that doesn’t create clarity. It creates confusion.
Back in January, on the day he was introduced as the coach, Rivera recounted a conversation with his new boss, team owner Daniel Snyder: “I told him I didn’t want to go through a five-year rebuilding process because, quite honestly, I just don’t have the patience.”
It hasn’t been five years. It has been only five weeks. There is time to be patient, and there’s every chance Ron Rivera was exactly the right person to step into a culture that badly needed an overhaul. He did so much right in navigating the 20-foot swells of an offseason that came with neither a compass nor a map.
Now, five games into the actual season, he’s taking his 1-4 team through what he is calling an “interesting stretch” and, apparently, going for a division title. He was hired to bring order and discipline to his franchise. It would help if he had the same order and discipline to his message.