Ron Rivera is now the 30th head coach of the Washington Redskins, and he brings a stellar reputation and plenty of player endorsements with him.
Fans are excited about what Rivera brings to the organization. There will be some changes on defense, a shift in culture and a focus on the coaches directing the players to deliver the best results. But what exactly will all that look like, and what will Rivera do to ensure his visions become reality?
The Carolina Panthers, Rivera's former team, are very familiar with the head coach and his style. That's why Redskins.com spoke to Panthers senior digital content writer Max Henson for an inside look at what Rivera's first season donning the burgundy and gold might look like. Below is our conversation:
Question: First, what was a Ron Rivera team like inside the building when it comes to the team atmosphere?
Henson: I would say Ron did a great job trying to build a family-type culture. That started with his own family. He wanted them to be visible in the community, visible with his players. And it just permeated throughout the building that this was an organization that was going to be in it together.
There was going to be transparency, openness and honesty, and everybody was going to be treated with a level of respect that Ron felt everybody deserved. I think he set the tone for that. That was what really marked his tenure here. Everybody respected him because of how much he respected everybody else around him. Everybody just bought in very quickly to what Ron was selling. It was very authentic.
He was the same guy from day one as he was the day he was fired. And I think everybody really appreciated that consistency from him. People wanted to work for him and work hard for him, and in the players' case, play hard for him. The best thing he did here was establish that kind of culture.
Q: The Panthers organization did a lot for Rivera, even wishing him farewell after he was fired. How rare is that to have to have a coach that is let go, yet means so much to the team?
Henson: I think that goes to show what had been built here over time between Ron and this organization. Nine years is a long time to be a coach anywhere, and I think it's OK to acknowledge that at a certain point that these things have a shelf life and it was just time for a change, both for Ron and for the Panthers. It's OK to have come to that realization.
This did not end in a messy divorce. No one felt the rug was pulled out from underneath Ron. Ron understood it's a win-based business. The team here wasn't winning, and it needed a change. I think everybody here will tell you they expected Ron to have success wherever it was he ended up. It was great just the way in which things ended here. Obviously, these are difficult situations, but there was respect that was shown throughout that exit. You're right that it's rare to see a team to send off a fired head coach the way the Panthers did. But I think that says a lot about what Ron meant to this place.
Q: In his opening press conference, River talked about a player-centered culture with a coach-centered approach. Is that something that he incorporated in Carolina? And if so, what exactly does that look like?
Henson: Ron's best teams were the ones where the players did most of the leading. He empowers his guys to steer the ship, and he really relies on the captains to report back to him with, 'Hey, coach, this is what's going on. We've got to take another look at this.' That feedback is really valuable to Ron.
Once he feels like things have gotten established and he can trust the players that have been put in place, he wants them to really lead this thing. And I think that's what the best teams do. They don't need somebody barking out orders in order for things to get done. They self-police. When the Panthers were at their best under Ron, that's what he did.
They had identified the right kind of guys to lead the team, and then Ron trusted them to take ownership of it. Ron's not the type of guy where he has such a big ego that he has to be the one constantly leading with a heavy hand. He has enough awareness to know that it was a good thing when he didn't have to say much or when his players took control.
Q: Rivera said a lot about having one way to do things and everyone falls in line, but it also sounds to me that you're saying he's also willing to give a little bit of flexibility in terms of what his way is.
Henson: I think there's two things. When you're talking about off the field things and team chemistry issues, Ron wants the feedback from the players, and that's a conversation he'll have with his captains. That's how it went here in Carolina.
When it comes to on the field stuff and what Ron expects from the players, that is very clearly defined for Ron. What he was getting at in his presser yesterday is that he and his coaches are going to lay out a plan. They're going to lay out assignments and responsibilities, and he expects the players to follow those assignments and adhere to those responsibilities. He's confident that he's putting a plan in place that's going to give them success.
It's when the players stray from that and try to either improvise or do their own thing is where things unravel. Ron had the quote yesterday where he basically said if we succeed doing it my way on the field, then the players are going to get the credit. If we fail doing it my way, then all the blame is going to come on the head coach. That's how Ron wants to do things.
Q: He's only been here for a day and he's already started to make some changes. One of the first things he did was remove the ping pong table from the locker room.
Henson: I heard about that.
Q: Just by doing that, it looks like he's very much about his business when it comes to football.
Henson: Sean McDermott, who was Ron's first defensive coordinator here, did a similar thing when he first started coaching for the Buffalo Bills. He saw that the Buffalo locker room had stuff like that, and he got it out of there. For a coach like Ron, when they're going to a place where there was not a lot of success and things clearly need to be changed and they're trying to rebuild something, all that stuff needs to be earned.
Where Washington is and where Buffalo was. I think the way Ron and Sean looked at it is that, 'We don't have time for that stuff right now.' If you're 14-2, we can talk about having some ping pong tables in here, but when you're trying to build something from the ground up, that stuff gets looked at a little bit differently.
Q: Rivera's first big coaching move was to bring in Jack Del Rio as the defensive coordinator. I'm not sure how much you know about Del Rio, but do you think he's a "Ron Rivera" type of coach?
Henson: Ron's got a lot of deep ties to a lot of coaches around the league. He's been in this business for so long and has worked with so many well-regarded coaches. The Del Rio hire makes a lot of sense to me. Del Rio's had a lot of successes. Ron's specialty is defense. So, whoever was he was going to hire needed to be somebody he had a lot of respect for. Ron takes pride in the defensive side of the ball. It didn't surprise me that Del Rio was the guy and I think that was smart choice.
Q: How much of a part did Rivera play in his defenses? Did he give the reigns over to his defense coordinators or was it a collaborative effort?
Henson: Sean [McDermott] was his first defensive coordinator here and he allowed Sean to run the defense. And Sean parlayed that into his job in Buffalo and had some great success here. Steve Wilkes took over after Sean and that also led to a head coaching opportunity for Wilkes. It wasn't until the past couple of years with Eric Washington and things defensively just were getting off track for a number of reasons that Ron then stepped in toward the end of last season as the defensive play caller.
He continued in that role throughout this past season. But for the majority of his tenure, he allowed the defensive coordinator to run the defense. That's what he prefers to do. He allows and trusts his coordinators to have the autonomy to do that. It wasn't until recently where that changed defensively and Ron decided that he needed to kind of take an active role in defensive play calling.
Q: What exactly was the reasoning for that?
Henson: They just needed to change something. That was obvious. There was some pressure and they needed to try to find an answer. Everyone was looking to him for an answer, and as a guy who has had a lot of success calling a defense in this league, I think he felt it was time for him to step back into that role and see if that could help turn things around.
Q: One of the biggest talking points about him coming to the Redskins is changing from a 3-4 to a 4-3. What is that transition going to involve with Rivera at the helm?
Henson: Here's what I will say: throughout his time here, Ron made it pretty clear that to play defense at a high level in this league, you have to be able to be multiple. So, while the Panthers were a 4-3 throughout most of his time, they incorporated some odd-front looks. They weren't afraid to have some guys stand up and move around and try to create some confusion.
So, Ron's message, especially when they made a switch to a 3-4, was always that more was being made out of it then there really should be. It's a talking point, and it's something people are going to dissect and discuss, but I don't think it's as big an issue as maybe people will make it out to be. Any good coach is going to try to put his players in their best position to have success.
Ron will use whatever sort of looks he feels it takes in order to bring that out of that defense. And he's a guy who made it pretty clear that the fronts should be multiple. You have to kind of have that ability to be creative and what your "base" is probably isn't as significant is as people make it out to be.
Q: It sounds like the term 4-3 isn't exactly accurate. It's more of a hybrid defense than anything else.
Henson: Yes. I'm not exactly sure how Ron's going to approach things, but I can tell you the way he answered those questions here. You don't want to put yourself in a box, by any means, and especially with how offenses already have an upper hand, you want to have as many things in your back pocket that you can throw at them.
Q: Finally, this fan base is just starting to get to know Rivera. What are some things they can expect from him in the coming weeks and months of him leading this team?
Henson: I would say you can expect the locker room to immediately get behind him. Anybody you would talk to who's played for him vouches for him. He's just a guy that is extremely likable. He's very honest, and at some times he probably would admit he says too much. But that's just Ron. He may not show emotions on the sideline as some people would like to see, but he is a very competitive.
He takes a lot of pride and he puts a lot on himself to make sure that he's as steady as he possibly can be. We all know that with a job like that, you're going to navigate some ups and downs, but don't mistake that for somebody who's not passionate or somebody who doesn't have an intensity to them. Ron has those things. His players, his coaches, people in that building, everybody will see that.
Everybody in Washington will come to find out what people in Carolina learned over the course of nine seasons. Ron's a really good man. He's a really good coach, and I think a situation like this where he's got a chance to build a culture is perfectly suited for him.