The best and the worst of Ron Rivera’s four seasons in Washington

Commanders Coach Ron Rivera stands on the field during the Commanders' game against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
7 min

The Ron Rivera era in Washington (Jan. 1, 2020, to Jan. 8, 2024) will be remembered as one of the most tumultuous periods in franchise history.

It is difficult to form a comprehensive list of the immense challenges Rivera faced in Washington. The coronavirus pandemic. Cancer. A decimated fan base. A crumbling home stadium. A massive organizational rebranding. Multiple investigations and probes by three attorneys general. A Drug Enforcement Administration raid of the team’s facility. A player shot, with the team later issuing a statement using the incident as a political tool. His mother’s death.

Some of Rivera’s problems — especially in football operations — were self-created. Others, such as the unrelenting chaos in the final days of former owner Daniel Snyder’s tenure, were beyond his control.

Commanders fire Ron Rivera

On Friday, as Rivera reflected on his tenure, his comments about a stretch in the 2022 season summed it up.

“The focus was on stuff that didn’t have anything to do with football,” he said. “That was really what I felt like I was always fighting, trying to keep the focus on the players.”

Let’s look back at the best and worst of the Rivera era.

Best moment

Taylor Heinicke’s pylon dive: It’s not even close. Going into the first round of the 2020 playoffs, quarterback injuries forced Washington to turn to Heinicke, a former undrafted free agent from Old Dominion. Heinicke had washed out of the NFL and was sleeping on his sister’s couch, taking college classes online, before he signed with the Washington Football Team as a quarantine quarterback.

In the third quarter of the game against the Buccaneers, Heinicke scrambled, dived for the pylon and landed in local folklore. Washington lost to Tampa Bay, 31-23, but Heinicke’s surprising grit and heart gave rise to one of the franchise’s brightest moments in years.

Honorable mentions: Rivera rings the bell after finishing cancer treatment, triumphant returns for Alex Smith and Brian Robinson Jr., clinching the NFC East in 2020, Jeremy Reaves’s Pro Bowl video, fans flooding back to training camp in 2023

Worst moment

Shooting of Brian Robinson Jr.: There were many bad football moments: embarrassing losses, serious injuries, Rivera’s gaffes during news conferences, the trades that sent away Chase Young and Montez Sweat, the sideline fight between Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne.

And there were many serious off-the-field moments: Rivera’s cancer diagnosis. The tragic saga of Dwayne Haskins. Investigations of allegations of workplace culture, financial malfeasance and sexual harassment. The fatal car crash involving Deshazor Everett. Jamin Davis’s conviction on a separate reckless driving charge. The DEA’s raid on allegations that head trainer Ryan Vermillion, whom Rivera hired, was illegally distributing opioids to players.

The worst moment was when, in August 2022, Robinson was shot. The rookie running back showed unbelievable resilience and returned to the football field five weeks later. In December, the team used the incident to criticize D.C.’s attorney general, who was investigating allegations the team had misled and deceived customers. The team later apologized.

Honorable mentions: listed above

Best roster move

Not landing Russell Wilson: There aren’t many contenders for this superlative. Most of the Commanders’ pillar players were already here when Rivera arrived, and his regime failed at roster building.

Rivera’s best move was made for him. In early 2022, Washington aggressively pursued Russell Wilson and was willing to offer a package that included three first-round draft picks. But Wilson wouldn’t waive his no-trade clause. The Commanders’ backup plan — trading for Carson Wentz — was a far cheaper mistake than landing Wilson would have been.

Svrluga: The Ron Rivera era was a mess

Seattle traded Wilson and a fourth-round pick to Denver for a major haul of five picks — two first-rounders, two seconds and a fifth — as well as three players. Denver gave Wilson a huge contract extension to tie him to the team for seven years and $296 million.

This season, Denver benched Wilson and is preparing to take the expensive step of jettisoning him in the offseason.

Honorable mentions: drafting Kam Curl in the seventh round, trading down in the 2022 draft, retaining Terry McLaurin, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne

Worst roster move

Nearly everything QB-related: Rivera never found a franchise quarterback. He passed on drafting one in 2020, signed Ryan Fitzpatrick as a bridge in 2021, overpaid to trade for Carson Wentz in 2022 and gambled big on Sam Howell in 2023. Nine quarterbacks played for Rivera, and none were the answer.

Rivera felt the heat. In 2022, he said the difference between Washington and the rest of the NFC East was “quarterback” and then, a few days later, ranted that he, not Snyder, had traded for Wentz, saying, “I’m the f---ing guy that looked at the analytics!”

Svrluga: Sam Howell showed what he isn’t: The QB of the future

Honorable mentions: signing William Jackson III, over-drafting several prospects, decimating the offensive line, trading Trent Williams, trading up to draft Camaron Cheeseman

Best decision

Trying to shield players from the Snyder chaos: It was an impossible task. But for all of Rivera’s faults as head of football personnel and for all the disappointments of his team’s play on the field, it’s clear his players appreciated his earnest commitment to them. After his final game, everyone in the locker room knew his tenure was over, and players spoke glowingly about what it was like to play for him.

That sentiment won’t appease frustrated fans. It didn’t often translate to wins. But it’s fair to argue Rivera’s strengths fit well with Snyder’s chaotic exit. A coach with different strengths might not have been able to keep things together as long as Rivera did — even though it all fell apart at the very end.

Honorable mention: signing Heinicke, playing Smith after his devastating injury

Worst decision

Loyalty to underperformers: Given a blank slate and total control, Rivera essentially built Carolina 2.0. He brought in executives, coaches and players who, in nine seasons with the Panthers, had been mostly mediocre. In 2021, Rivera hired former Carolina general manager Marty Hurney as a senior executive, and San Francisco General Manager John Lynch acknowledged: “I feel like everybody doubted, ‘Could it work with [Rivera] and Marty?’ ”

Svrluga: Sam Howell showed what he isn’t: The QB of the future

Rivera stood by his people, including when defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio called the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol a “dust-up.” Rivera often made moves only when situations became untenable, such as the firings of offensive coordinator Scott Turner, Vermillion and Del Rio. There’s a long list of over-drafted prospects and bad free agent signings.

Honorable mention: going back to Wentz vs. Cleveland in 2022

Best win

Blowing out Dallas in 2020: Rivera’s teams pulled off a few big upsets, including one against Tom Brady and two on the road against undefeated teams. But the 41-16 domination of the rival Cowboys on national TV stands above them because it was the biggest win of Rivera’s tenure, key to later winning the NFC East and an important reminder for some fans that, even though the franchise had just retired the old moniker, it could still whoop Dallas on Thanksgiving.

Plus, two of Rivera’s draft picks — running back Antonio Gibson (three touchdowns) and defensive end Chase Young (one sack, two tackles for loss) — showed immense promise.

Honorable mentions: at Philadelphia 2022, vs. Tampa Bay 2021, at Pittsburgh 2020

Worst loss

“We can be eliminated?”: There are plenty of choices. Washington was favored by three or more points 12 times under Rivera and went 5-7 in those games. But the worst loss was Cleveland at home in Week 17 of 2022.

In early December, Washington was 7-5, on track for a playoff berth, and then it collapsed down the stretch. Rivera benched Heinicke for Wentz, saying he wanted “a little bit of a spark,” and Wentz crumbled. Cleveland — which was already eliminated from playoff contention — eliminated the Commanders. Rivera had one of his most infamous gaffes in the postgame news conference when he said, apparently unaware, “We can be eliminated?”

Honorable mentions: vs. Chicago 2023, vs. New York Giants 2023, vs. Giants 2022, at Dallas 2021