The story still makes Ron Rivera laugh, even as he mourns the loss of a friend and mentor. Back in 2013, as Rivera spent a long day in Northern California picking the brain of John Madden, the Hall of Fame coach recalled a high-stress moment from his remarkable 10-year run with the Oakland Raiders.
"He told me about a speech he did at halftime of a game with the New York Jets, when everything was going wrong, and he was upset, disappointed, frustrated and wanted to get it right," Rivera recalled. "And it just shows you how it is: He said, 'I was so pissed off. I was so mad. I was so frustrated. I got in front of the guys and I said, We're f----- for our fighting lives!"
Rivera reviewed the tale of those transposed F-words, and other notes from his many conversations with Madden, in the wake of the esteemed coach and broadcaster’s death at the age of 85 on Tuesday. Their relationship played a significant role in Rivera's coaching development, and the lessons Madden imparted are something the Washington coach carries with him in good days and bad -- and, yes, during extremely frustrating nights like the one in Arlington, Texas, last Sunday, when Washington suffered a 56-14 defeat to the Dallas Cowboys that pushed it to the brink of playoff elimination.
Washington can still make the postseason as a wild-card team by winning its final two games (at home against the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday, and at the New York Giants the following week) -- and getting a bunch of help. To Rivera, whose team has been ravaged by injuries, COVID-19-related absences and off-the-field tragedies in recent weeks, there are many, many reasons not to give up the fight.
"There's still something worth playing for," Rivera said. "At the end of the day, you've got to take your best shot and see what happens. You want to win, and no matter what happens you just want to set the tempo and tone for going forward. Whether we're fortunate enough to get in the playoffs and go forward or whether the season ends, you want that momentum going forward. You want to be able to build off of something positive."
Though Washington no longer controls its path to the postseason and has already failed to defend its NFC East title (the Cowboys clinched the division crown prior to taking the field Sunday night), Rivera remains confident in the team-building plan that commenced after he was hired almost exactly two years ago. Despite the daunting circumstances he has faced in each of his two seasons, his convictions remain unshakable -- partly because of the confidence Madden helped instill.
Shortly after the 2012 season, Rivera's second as the Carolina Panthers' head coach, then-owner Jerry Richardson suggested Madden as a mentor. Rivera, who'd gone 6-10 and 7-9 in his first two campaigns, happily took his boss up on the offer, which led to him meeting Madden at the legendary coach's expansive broadcasting studio in Pleasanton, California.
Before their meeting Madden had asked Rivera, who at the time was 3-13 in games decided by six points or fewer, to look back on those experiences and determine what he could have done differently.
"So I went back and I wrote this elaborate report about those 13 games I lost and what decisions I could've made to help change it," Rivera said. "I flew out to see him, and after some pleasantries I said, 'Oh, here -- I brought that report for you.' He goes, 'That's not for me. That's for you.'
"Then he asked, 'What did you learn?' I said, 'Well, I was doing things by the book. I was doing things, you know, the way you should, the way you're supposed to.' He looked at me and he goes, 'What book? Ron, there is no book. You've played enough, you've coached enough and you know enough football to make good decisions based on your gut, based on your instincts. There is no book.'"
The next season, Riverboat Ron was born, and Rivera's coaching career took off. The Panthers went 12-4 in 2013, beginning a string of three consecutive NFC South titles that culminated with a 15-1 regular season and Super Bowl 50 appearance.
Madden's wisdom and support helped Rivera during the challenging 2020 campaign, which included his battle with cancer, and throughout the past few months. After stumbling to a 2-6 start, Washington pulled off an epic upset of the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers to launch a four-game winning streak and get back into the playoff hunt. Then came the wave of COVID-19-related absences that hamstrung Washington during its current three-game losing streak, with the most lopsided defeat saved for last.
"Honestly, you've heard people talk about 'COVID Fatigue?' That's what this feels like," Rivera said. "You get tired of it. You want to say, 'Hey, this is how we're going to (build it), and we're gonna stick to it. But so many things have happened, from losing our quarterback (Ryan Fitzpatrick) in the very first game of the regular season, to where we are now. It's just been an uphill battle ever since.
"The whole circumstances of it really suck. You play a Monday Night game against Seattle, travel cross country to play (the Las Vegas Raiders) on a short week, fly back and get home around 2:30, 3 o'clock in the morning. Then you come into work and the first thing they tell you is, 'Oh, by the way, your three defensive ends are out.' And then the next thing you hear is, 'You've got some more guys that are out.' You go into a game depleted already. When it rains, it pours."
And on Sunday came the Dallas deluge, in front of a national audience. The spectacle included a high-profile spat between defensive ends Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, during which the two longtime college and NFL teammates had to be separated.
"That was two passionate guys -- guys that want to play, guys that want to win," Rivera said. "They didn't handle it very well. They know it. The best part is they took responsibility. They got in front of the media, answered the questions and basically said, 'Hey man, we're competitive, we got emotional, we want to win.' Each one said, 'I could have handled it better, but it's like fighting your brother so, we're moving on.' I really appreciated that.
"And I've been through that. A lot of people forget that we had Cam Newton and Josh Norman fight (in Carolina). We had Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy fighting on the sidelines. So it's not like it doesn't happen. Passionate, competitive people, that's what sometimes happens."
Rivera, by all accounts, was remarkably restrained when addressing his team at halftime last Sunday night, but he was obviously seething on the inside. As he learned from Madden, sometimes it's impossible to keep it together, to the point where you transpose F-words and unintentional comedy ensues. The key, Rivera knows, is to channel that frustration into leadership—something he'll attempt to do on the final two Sundays of the 2021 regular season, and beyond.
"It was kind of a cool lesson," Rivera said, recalling Madden's retelling of his halftime speech against the Jets many decades ago. "He said, 'Ron, you're gonna have a moment like that, and nothing is gonna come out right. The biggest thing you'll have to do, more so than anything else, is that you're gonna have to catch your breath and reevaluate you."