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Washington Football Team: This is Ron Rivera's team, for better and worse
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Washington Football Team: This is Ron Rivera's team, for better and worse

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Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera watches from the sidelines during the second half of a preseason NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021, in Landover, Md. Baltimore won 37-3. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

ASHBURN - Super Bowl parties can run late into the evening, and on this particular night in Miami, new Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera was socializing with his wife, Stephanie, and team owner Dan Snyder.

Then, he wasn't.

"Mr. Snyder asked my wife, 'Oh, is Ron around?'" Rivera recalled. "And she said, 'No, he went to bed.' And he looked at her like, really? 'Oh yeah. Ron sticks to his schedule. Ron does things the same way all the time.'

"That's who I am. I'm going to do things that way."

Rivera told the story at a recent symposium for participants in this year's Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship, another of the things he is passionate about.

Doing things Rivera's way isn't optional in Washington. Thanks to events that happened before his arrival, he has found himself in a spot where he is arguably the most powerful coach in the National Football League.

That's quite the twist for a coach coming off a 9-year stint with the Panthers where his teams performed, on the whole, slightly better than league average.

But Rivera does not answer to a general manager (he has final say on personnel matters) and is not subservient to a team president (Jason Wright was brought on board after Rivera, and only after interviewing with the coach).

While Snyder remains above Rivera on the org chart, a series of legal battles has largely stripped him of the ability to come meddle in Rivera's decisions, at least in the short-term, while he needs to stay on the commissioner's good side.

What that means for fans is a team unlike any they have witnessed in the Snyder era.

Looking at the talent assembled on the defensive line, and Terry McLaurin's emergence as a star receiver, past iterations of Snyder's teams would have made a splashy quarterback signing in an attempt to reach the Super Bowl.

Rivera kicked the tires on two potentially major plays, first a trade for the Lions' Matt Stafford, then moving up in the draft to take one of the top rookies. He ultimately decided the cost was too high on both, not wanting to give up one of Washington's cornerstone pieces.

The team's spending this offseason was mostly restrained — sensible extensions for tight end Logan Thomas and defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, and of course the one-year deal offered to quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to be Washington's new starter.

It's a formula that makes Washington well positioned over the next three years or so, but gives them an Achilles' heel in 2021 — their depth.

Washington can ill-afford injuries at several key positions, including tight end and cornerback. Taylor Heinicke is a skilled backup quarterback, but his injury history would leave fans nervous if he's called upon for a significant length of time.

But on paper, with full health, there is no reason for pessimism.

Offensively, this is a group that will put five potent receivers on the field at a time. If Fitzpatrick can make the right decisions, and be gifted enough time in the pocket, this could be the best Washington offense in years. It'll certainly be the most fun.

Defensively, Jamin Davis isn't ready to dominate yet, but better cornerbacks, and the return of Landon Collins (my pick as the unexpected star of the season), should allow the defensive line to get better results than it had last year.

Any talk about schedule strength in the NFL is ridiculous, because things change so quickly, but it's fair to note that if they're healthy, games against Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Josh Allen will be difficult to win.

This isn't a Super Bowl team yet. But looking around the NFC East, it's hard to find a compelling reason to pick anybody other than the Football Team, particularly given the Rivera factor.

And so it all comes back to the coach, as it always will in Washington this season. Rivera is known for occasionally maddening decisions. He's also known for guiding teams with a steady hand and the kind of leadership that hasn't been seen around Ashburn in a while.

Predictions feel like a futile exercise for this team. You could convince me they'll win 11 and high-step to a division title. A six-win season where injuries strike and the defense is just too vulnerable at key spots? Yeah, it's possible.

You can't live your life in fear, though. Put me down for 9-8 and back-to-back NFC East titles. The offense overachieves, the defense underachieves, and this team, in the only prediction I feel good about, will never, ever be boring.

mphillips@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6546

Twitter: @michaelpRTD

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