The Truth Has Not Set Ron Rivera Free
1:56 PM EDT on October 12, 2022
It was as inevitable as the rising of the morning sun. From the moment Monday when Washington Commanders head coach Ron Rivera uttered the word "quarterback" in response to a reporter's question about his team's stagnation in the NFC East, no amount of clarification or backpedaling was going to spare Rivera the indignity of eventually having to face his quarterback, if not his entire team, and apologize. That moment arrived Tuesday afternoon, when during a scheduled meeting Rivera addressed his players and apologized for articulating his view indelicately and for the distraction that he has now caused.
Let's ignore for the moment the fact that the Washington Commanders franchise has been so preoccupied with dysfunction and controversy over the two decades of Daniel Snyder's ownership that it could be said that football—a sport which by tradition the Commanders play unsuccessfully and without any evident conviction, inspiration, or serious ambition—is in fact a distraction from the organization's primary undertaking, which is to bring acute shame and embarrassment to the people of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. What Ron Rivera said and subsequently apologized for saying is not wrong, both in the sense that he was expressing an informed opinion on the situation, and in the sense that Carson Wentz stinks real bad at the sport's most important position. Rivera's irritable one-word answer may have smoothed over a lot of the fascinating contours that describe why, for example, the Cooper Rush–led Dallas Cowboys are kicking so much ass these days, but it also pinpoints the defining team-building axiom of 21st century NFL football: The surest way to turn a bad team into a good one is by improving its quarterback play. There isn't a last-place team in the league whose coach couldn't honestly answer the question of why they are where they are by just saying "quarterback." All other possible answers run the risk of missing the point.
Maybe it was those delicious 10 seconds or so after the answer, when Rivera sat silently, ornery and visibly spoiling for a fight, that sealed his fate. Not just because the stony silence provides an emphatic period at the end of the thought and thus a natural cut for video editors and aggregating bloggers, but because it reads like a dare to anyone interested in challenging the assertion. Reporter Matthew Paras of the Washington Times dared to go back in, and at first it can seem like Paras is grilling Rivera, until you realize that instead he's doing the grouchy head coach the favor of a lifetime, by allowing him a chance to soften his stance and deflect some of the blame he'd just aimed squarely at his signal-caller. Unfortunately, Rivera's rambling and extremely unconvincing clarifications only seemed to confirm that he was not at all prepared or willing to defend Wentz's performance, and thus reinforced Rivera's initial point, which is that quarterback play really is dragging the Commanders to hell.
At any rate, the damage was already done. Alex Smith, who played the final season of his career under Rivera in Washington, and who is hardly a bloodthirsty media sensationalist, said Monday night that he had a hard time watching his old coach go in on his own quarterback. "When I heard it, I couldn’t believe it. I’m not here to defend Carson Wentz. He’s had a tumultuous career and ups and downs. But this is a defensive head coach that’s absolutely driving the bus over his quarterback," Smith said on ESPN's Monday Night Countdown. "The blame has got to be spread around. This is a team sport. It is the ultimate team sport. How can a head coach stand up there in front of the media and utter one word, and it’s ‘quarterback’?”
Smith wasn't the only former Washington quarterback to scold Rivera:
It was finally all enough for Rivera to realize he'd screwed up, and badly enough that an apology was needed. “I basically told [the team], I said some things that were misconstrued,” Rivera explained Tuesday, of a comment he made that by design left absolutely no room for any construing whatsoever. “I didn’t present it properly, and that’s on me. So I took accountability, told the guys that I should know better and, shit, I had a bad day. I’ve been doing this quite some time, and for me not to finish my thought completely, I messed up. And so I just told the guys that it was me, and it won’t happen again." If only for job-security reasons, it probably will not: The Commanders are 1–4, with the NFC's worst point differential, and are a grim 15–23 since Rivera was hired to reverse decades of miserable futility and put a proud face on a new era of stability. Snyder has gone through 10 coaches in 22 seasons of ownership, including several with vastly more impressive résumés and track records than Rivera's. Rivera may not have been wrong, but given his precarious circumstances, he was not exactly wise.
It's annoying to me whenever public figures get in trouble and then apologize for saying true things, and it's somewhat of a bummer to think that Rivera has learned his lesson and going forward may do the whole humiliating song and dance about football being a team game and needing to shore up all facets and everyone taking a look in the mirror and doing a better job, myself included, when everyone knows he is avoiding the elephant in the room. What a shame to waste such a clarifying moment of truth on Carson damn Wentz, of all people. Aim a little higher, coach! Next time a reporter asks why the Commanders suck so much worse than everyone else, Rivera should go legend mode and blurt out, "Owner."