By Juan Lozano | December 29, 2020
On January 1, 2020, Ron Rivera was named the head coach of the Washington Football Team. To be more accurate, Rivera was named the head coach of the Washington team when it was known by another name. As we near the one-year anniversary of Rivera being named WFT head coach, much is different about the organization. In addition to the team nickname and of course the coaching staff, the power structure of the team has changed as key front office player personnel executives, such as Bruce Allen and Alex Santos are no longer with the team.
At Rivera’s introductory press conference, Washington owner Daniel Snyder was quick to point out that the head coach, Rivera, would be the nucleus of the organization’s new power structure. Snyder said “We’re going to have one voice and one voice alone, and that’s going to be the coach’s”.
If we are to believe Mr. Snyder, then Coach Rivera is solely responsible for this past week’s shockingly poor organizational response to a serious, yet manageable situation that turned into a debacle. What we are referring to of course is WFT’s response to the discovery of photos that showed second-year and now former quarterback Dwayne Haskins, partying while maskless, in violation of the NFL’s pandemic protocols.
What did Washington do after seeing the photos? The organization responded quickly and stripped Haskins of team captain recognition and fined him $40,000, roughly half of his weekly salary. That’s a hefty fine for sure. That however was the extent of the team’s response. WFT handled the punishment as they successfully lobbied the NFL to “stay out” as they wanted to handle the matter internally. We aren’t sure what methods WFT used to convince the NFL that the organization could handle this violation of league protocol. (Whatever argument was used, we are sure that the Raiders players fined by the league earlier this season, would like to know how to cobble together such a convincing argument.)
After the team handled the matter internally, Rivera gave the starting quarterback nod to Haskins. The second-year player, Haskins, began the year as the starter and was replaced by Kyle Allen and later veteran Alex Smith. However, Allen was lost for the season and Smith went down due to injury in Week 15 and Haskins appeared to be the only viable option as a starter heading into the Week 16 contest against Carolina.
The only other quarterback WFT had on the active roster was journeyman quarterback Taylor Heinicke who signed to the team’s practice squad on December 8th and was promoted to the active roster on December 19. However, Heinicke is no stranger to Rivera and the offensive staff having played for Carolina in 2018. In fact, he even started a game.
Haskins played on Sunday and predictably his performance was subpar as he threw two interceptions while completing 14 passes for 154 yards. Haskins was spelled by Heinicke who was 12-of-19 for 137 yards and a touchdown. After the game, Haskins abruptly departed the stadium and didn’t meet his league-mandated post-game media obligations until it became well-publicized on Twitter and he arrived home. It was his last official appearance as a member of the Washington Football Team as he was released on Monday.
Certainly it’s Haskins’ fault as he violated protocols, and comported himself in less than a professional manner. As he noted in a statement after his release, he is ultimately responsible for not meeting standards.
This column isn’t about Haskins ultimately, he’s just an actor in a scenario that is playing out in Washington as it does on football teams throughout the country. The issue here is leadership and tolerance. How much tolerance do leaders have for talented players? Equally as important a question is “Why was it so hard for the organization to finally do “A” right thing?”
There is not one right thing. There’s many ways to respond to a situation like this.
The team as mentioned before took some punitive measures, they took the captaincy and the “CAPTAIN” patch from Haskins’ uniform and fined him a significant sum. Fine. But what was really taken? What value does a captaincy have when you can be captain one week and have it stripped and be off the team in a week’s time? Well, it isn’t worth much at all. The team, in this case, Rivera, really took away nothing from Haskins here.
There is also a protection goal when handing out discipline towards a rogue actor in a team setting. A leader wants to protect his team, in this case, from people that make bad decisions. There’s also a rehabilitation component. Haskins has had a number of incidents that gave the organization pause. Yet, they did not cut him immediately. We understand wanting to save him too.
The ultimate goal, in a team sport, is of course to win. During the week, Rivera and the staff came to the conclusion that Haskins gave them the best chance to win. This is where we start to question the judgment of the head coach. Rivera did not protect his team. A coach can try and rehabilitate the player without giving him the most important position on the field.
The most important thing to a team and player is of course, time. Preparation and practice time is of paramount importance in football. There isn’t much time during the season to get ready for a game. The week flies by. Coaches need time to game plan and script practices. There’s only so many reps at practice to go around. If a team decides someone is a starter, they need to get them ready early in the week. WFT spent their time early in the week, getting Haskins ready.
To come to this conclusion, Rivera and the offensive staff would have had to erroneously believe that Haskins was talented enough that he could overcome this intense distraction and lead a team to victory.
That’s surprising especially considering the number of former players (six, including two-time head coach Jack Del Rio) and people that grew up around the game (three, including quarteracks coach Ken Zampese) on the assistant coaching staff.
They’ve been in the locker room and have seen a lot. For example, Rivera played on the 1985 Bears, a team loaded with personalities on the roster (Jim McMahon, Steve McMichael, etc.) and even the coaching staff (Mike Ditka, Buddy Ryan, etc.).
The difference between Haskins as a distraction and those 1985 Bears? Even though they burned the candle strong on both ends, they were veterans with established work habits. They were proven NFL winners around other winners. This is a different situation as Haskins was an unproven and struggling second-year quarterback with a team fighting for relevancy and a playoff spot.
The Haskins situation and related response is the moment that coaches generally talk about well into retirement. This is their Super Bowl. This is their opportunity to be heroic. This was an opportunity to be who they say they are, principled, resolute, and unwavering in their commitment to the values of the team.
Instead the Washington decision makers look weak, having tried to get a player that was ill-prepared to perform. What’s worse is they told the team by playing Haskins that they should believe in both Haskins and the staff. The team knows that you played him. The players know that you had a mistaken belief that Haskins would be able to contribute to a victory. Not only do they question the football judgment of the leader, they are questioning Rivera’s commitment to the principles that he espouses.
The lesson learned in Washington is that you can get away with not being a team player if you are perceived as being someone that can win a game. In fact, in Washington you can crash the car, as you’ll get the keys and get to drive yet another car.
Rivera has received kudos for having the power to ask the owner for Haskins’ release. That didn’t take great courage at all. He cut someone from the roster that currently can’t compete in an NFL game and may never be able to. What would have been courageous and redemptive is if he again sat Haskins and made him “INACTIVE” on gameday. This might have saved the quarterback. That might have been Haskins’ wake-up call, that is to endure the slight humiliation of being stripped of captaincy and not being allowed to dress out with the team. But Rivera and WFT didn’t do that.
Instead, they misplaced their faith in Haskins, he played, let the team down yet again, acted up and was cut. Washington got rid of their issue. And Rivera gets applause for having taken a stand after having failed to take one all week.
In Rivera’s introductory press conference, he cited his roots, that is, he comes from a military family- his father was an Army officer — and how he wanted to bring that type of discipline to the team.
Rivera’s brand of military discipline looks largely unfamiliar. It most certainly looks unfamiliar to linebacker coach Steve Russ, an NFL and Air Force veteran.
WFT heads into Sunday’s contest against Philadelphia with either Alex Smith or Heinicke at quarterback. If WFT starts Heinicke this weekend, but didn’t in Week 16, it suggests they are starting him NOW not because they believe he can win the game, but because they MUST start him as they are out of options. After all, WFT played a distracted and unprepared Haskins ahead of Heinicke. What makes matters even more harrowing is that the stakes are high for WFT and Rivera, as a win against the Eagles secures the NFC East crown and a home playoff game.
Whether WFT wins or not isn’t wholly irrelevant, but it’s not as important as the long-term ramifications of that decision to play Haskins. We believe they could extend into 2021 and beyond. Rivera and staff demonstrated they are willing to compromise their values for a player that can’t even get through a game. Imagine the kind of message that sends to the rest of the team.
Currently the values of the team and organization appear to be nothing more than aspirational, a hashtag or a saying emblazoned in the hallways of the facility. For the most part, the general public doesn’t get to see how critical decisions are made in an organization. We are left to speculate based on what we have been told. The organization has touted the head coach-centric power structure and we can only conclude that Rivera makes the major decisions such as whether to start Haskins. Things may have again changed in Washington. The front office might have ordered the coaches to play Haskins. We aren’t sure. Anything in possible in Washington. Yes, the defense is playing better and there are some good young players on the roster, but the new Washington Football sure looks a lot like the old Washington Football Team right now.
Opinions expressed are solely of the author and do not express the views or opinions of Headcoachranking.com.