As reward pours in for Washington soccer, Ron Rivera wants to combine confidence with warning
The speeches were always followed by a not too gentle warning.
“You don’t want to lose focus.”
Now, three decades later, Rivera is in an interesting place. His Washington Football team has won four games in a row to become the NFC East favorite. And now he has to balance Ditka’s caution with a desire to keep making his players believe that after starting 2-7, they will actually be good enough to make it into the postseason.
It’s a complicated dance for any new winner’s coach. Rivera was a rookie in the 1984 Bears when Ditka celebrated his first major success in Chicago, winning what was then NFC Central with three wins, 10-6 just two years after a season. He saw Ditka overcome the outrageous expectations that accompanied the sudden success and manipulate them with one of the NFL’s most dominant defenses during the Super Bowl run the following season.
These bears were so good and so popular that they became known around the world with their own music video, The Super Bowl Shuffle. They found it hard not to be bewitched by the bomb of attention. In many ways, Ditka’s brilliance was to suppress the euphoria just enough to win six league titles in the nine years Rivera played for him.
But how does Rivera do the same with a franchise that’s so long in chaos and despair that a four-game winning streak feels almost like an invitation to a parade?
“They are relevant,” he called to his players in the locker room after their win over San Francisco last Sunday. He spoke of a team that had been largely ignored by the rest of the NFL and was only mentioned in debates about which teams are high enough to bring in a top quarterback next April. Yet he might as well have talked about the entire franchise, which had become an afterthought in his own market – once an unthinkable prospect.
Almost out of nowhere, Washington is the best 6-7 team in the league. The announcers rave about the size and strength of his defense.
“I think they’re the best defense in football,” marveled Brian Baldinger, an analyst for the NFL network, in a video after Sunday’s game. “They only whip you physically. It’s not a guy. It’s not two people. It’s the whole damn team … they just throw people around. “
And how does Rivera dare to do that? How does he heed Ditka’s words, who whisper: “They put you on this pedestal and then they knock you down?”
In three months he got a bunch of no-names on a no-name team to make a name for himself – and yet he now has to stop that team from thinking it’s too good while trying to do it making believe is good enough.
Last Thursday, shortly before the team’s first practice session after beating the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night, Rivera called the players together. He wanted to talk about another Super Bowl winning coach. John Madden who has become a mentor of his. One of the best pieces of advice Madden Rivera had given was realizing that in the days after a big win, teams can never pick up where they were. You have to start over. That way, the little details are never lost.
Rivera had been concerned about a “hangover” in Pittsburgh and wanted to be sure he would drive it away.
“We’re trying to get these guys past it and make them realize that what we did, how we played Monday night, doesn’t guarantee we’ll do it again this week,” he said later that day.
Then, on Sunday, against San Francisco in a strange street game in Arizona, Washington’s defense was better than Pittsburgh. And there was no way even Rivera could mute it.
“Get it, nobody – and I promise you nobody – wants to play us,” he said in that locker room speech.
There are three more games on Washington’s agenda and postseason stakes seem clear. Win two of them and it’s far from certain that Washington will take over NFC East. With everything that has happened here in recent years, it is difficult for any coach not to want to celebrate. Rivera’s biggest challenge for months has been understanding his team that they might be in that position. Now, the biggest test of his first season in Washington will be juggling his “You Are Relevant” with Ditka’s “You don’t want to lose focus”.
His ability to do so could tell anything about how far into January this insane, unexpected season for the Washington Football team will go.
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