Perspective | Ron Rivera hasn’t been the answer, but change might be impossible


He chose Carson Wentz as his quarterback to start the season and Carson Wentz as his quarterback with the season in the balance. Both decisions stunk. He didn’t know that a loss Sunday put his team in peril of being eliminated from playoff contention until after his team lost and was in such peril. He mismanages the clock and his timeouts more than you would like, and he boldly said his team needed to take a step forward in his third year, only to have it be decidedly stuck in neutral.

The damning elements of Ron Rivera’s tenure as coach of Washington’s NFL franchise have added up. In a normal town with a normal team at a normal time, firing him with two years left on a five-year deal would seem, well, normal.

But despite all the evidence, it’s hard to see that happening. This franchise is always defined and limited by its ownership. As the season concludes with a meaningless game against Dallas, it is frozen by it.

Daniel Snyder is, at the very least, exploring a sale of his Washington Commanders. Reporting by my Washington Post colleagues indicates he is not wooing minority stakeholders in an effort to press forward but is seeking a clean break. NFL owners don’t typically set up their permanent residence in England. After two woefully unsuccessful decades as the owner of his hometown team, Snyder may well be seeking a new life. Fingers crossed.

Ownership uncertainty complicates a critical offseason for Commanders

But for all the hope a new owner — any new owner — could bring, the current Commanders seem paralyzed. If Snyder is indeed selling — and again, insert hands-praying emoji here — then he has neither the interest nor the bandwidth to go through the interview process to hire what would be his 11th head coach, only to hand that coach to a new owner.

The decision on whether Rivera should be the coach has to rest with a new owner. More than that, the decision on who a replacement would be has to belong to a new owner. Doesn’t this somehow sound vaguely familiar? Oh, right. Because it is.

The Lerner family has been exploring a sale of its Washington Nationals since at least April. That process looms over the entire franchise, handcuffing it. Signing Dominic Smith to a one-year, $2 million deal once was an ancillary move for a franchise that annually intended to compete for championships. Now, with a rebuild’s parameters and personality possibly shaped by new leadership, it’s a quasi-centerpiece.

In the midst of this limbo, the Lerners did the only thing they could do: picked up one-year options on General Manager Mike Rizzo and Manager Dave Martinez, assuring both would be back — or at least would be paid — for 2023. The alternative? Let them go and spend the offseason both trying to sell the team and hire replacements. It’s neither practical nor palatable.

The Nationals will say their rebuilding process goes on as planned. And yes, the prospects can develop (or not) regardless of who is in the owners’ suite. But a vision of what moves could be made next offseason or the one after that — not to mention what might be afforded in terms of payroll? All of that is on pause, making the present less promising and the future unknowable.

Which sounds exactly like what the Commanders probably face this offseason, unless a sale arrives before the start of free agency in mid-March and the draft in April. Rivera’s decision to start rookie Sam Howell in Week 18 — the only decision that made sense — makes final what was already obvious: that Wentz, Rivera’s handpicked solution at quarterback, is done here. He chose Wentz. Wentz played poorly. That’s on Rivera, full stop.

The decision only exacerbates Rivera’s exceedingly odd résumé. Between his nine-year tenure in Carolina and his three seasons in Washington, he has now coached 189 regular season NFL games and posted a .519 winning percentage. Of the 42 men who have coached more games, according to data at Pro Football Reference, only eight have won at a lower rate. That fact illustrates the obvious: To coach for that long, you have to win.

Dig in on those numbers a little deeper. Rivera’s dozen seasons have ended with a winning record just three times, a 25 percent rate. No one who has coached more games has a lower rate of winning seasons — though Sam Wyche, who took the Cincinnati Bengals to a Super Bowl and later coached in Tampa Bay, also went three for 12. Lovie Smith, Lou Saban, Jon Gruden, Norv Turner, Marvin Lewis, Weeb Ewbank and Jeff Fisher all coached more games than Rivera and won a lower percentage of them. But all seven of those coaches posted winning records more often.

What we have, then, is a documented record of mediocrity. Upon his hiring, Rivera represented a sort of steel-jawed stability. He brought a dignity the franchise desperately needed. He stood tall during his own fight with cancer, setting an example and a standard. It was and is admirable.

But he does not win and has not won consistently. It didn’t happen in Carolina, where he was eventually fired by a new owner. It hasn’t happened in Washington, where he is 21-27-1, won a division title with a losing record in Year 1 and had a playoff spot in his grasp but went 0-3-1 with a bungled quarterback switch in Year 3.

It’s damning. But it says here it won’t be enough for a switch. The Commanders are for sale, and that’s the most important aspect of today and tomorrow and 10 years from now, when this all might seem like a blip. The problem is this: It’s hard to see a path in which Rivera is the long-term architect of a consistent winner in Washington, and it’s hard to see him anywhere but on the sideline for the season opener in 2023.

That’s a new kind of purgatory for Washington. The owner has long defined and hindered the franchise, and the possibility he will be changed matters most. But the coach matters, too, and keeping Ron Rivera at this point feels more like running in place than sprinting forward.

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