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Washington Is All In On Ron Rivera's Culture

Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera greets outside linebacker Thomas Davis (58) prior to an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera greets outside linebacker Thomas Davis (58) prior to an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Head coach Ron Rivera was speaking with head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion when he heard something that took him by surprise.

"He says: 'Coach, we had 30-something guys in the weight room today on their day off.' I'm sitting there: 'How many?' And he says 30. I say, 'Wow, really?'"

That wasn't all, though; based on the buzz that was coming out of the locker room, Vermillion could tell the players were engaged with one another. There were also about 27 players coming in to get treatment, and only six of them were on the injury report. The rest were simply coming in to take care of their bodies.

It was one of the latest signs to Rivera that the team has bought into the culture he has been trying to sell them for the better part of a year. Washington is holding on to first place in the NFC East thanks to a four-game win streak, and while improved play has certainly contributed to that success, belief in Rivera's team-first message has been at the center of it.

"I really think it's 'Team,'" Rivera said Monday about Washington's identity. "We talk about it -- one side has stepped up and played well. One position has played well, picked up the other positions. A guy gets hurt, somebody steps up and does their job like the 'next man mentally.' ...That's all part of coming together and being a team."

Rivera has been preaching that same message since he was hired in January, but it took a while for it to notice the effects. After taking down the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1, the team suffered five consecutive losses before bouncing back against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 7 and losing two more after its bye week. It entered Week 10 at 2-7, its playoff hopes dwindling in a historically poor division.

It would have been easy, and even understood, for the team to be frustrated at that point. The defense, which had high expectations coming into the season, allowed at least 30 points in five of its losses, while the offense struggled to gain traction until the second halves of games. But Washington still showed it could be competitive, and none of its NFC East rivals were running away with the division title.

"I think as long as you're playing with some hope, I think that's important," Rivera said. "I really do. I think some of the decisions that were made also helped in terms of telling these guys that this was about winning, wanting to win, trying to win, trying to learn how to win. I think those things are important to the players. These men want to win. If you can show them and if you can help them and they know you're trying to help them, they buy in."

The narrative surrounding Washington has flipped in the past month, and after being tied for last in the division, its 23-15 win over the San Francisco 49ers vaulted it into the lead. The offense, which was ranked last heading into its first matchup with the New York Giants, put up at least 300 yards and 20 points in seven of the past eight games.

Washington's defense, which is ranked fourth in the NFL, has shown even biggest leaps in growth. In the past three weeks, it has allowed an average of 16 points (sixth) and 63 rushing yards per game (first). It's also third in passing yards allowed this season with 206.3 per game.

Much of that success has been spearheaded by the defensive line, which has looked like the unit many predicted it would be this season. It leads a pass rush that is tied for fourth with 40.0 sacks and fourth in adjusted sack rate. It took some time, Rivera said, to break the group of its old habits, but now that it has gotten rid of the old techniques, it is ascending.

"That's the big thing is that you want to see that growth where they're going up because it bodes well for the future," Rivera said following the Steelers game. "We don't know what's going to happen in the next few weeks, but we're going to come out and play hard and give our best effort and see what happens. We really believe right now -- at least I do -- that the players have bought in and they're beginning to believe in what the potential in this unit can be, what this group of guys can accomplish."

Washington has now become relevant with three games left in the regular season, and a sense of confidence that has swept the team. Not only are players confident in the way they handle themselves, Rivera said, but they're also confident in the way the team approaches things. He believes having that can be helpful, but the one condition is that it can't be false.

"You've got to earn that relevance," he said. "You're not given the relevance. When we show up next year, we might be part of the conversation. But if we don't live up to it, we're going to be irrelevant very quickly. There's a little bit of pressure that starts to happen, too. You've got to handle that recognition that people give you."

Washington is a six-point underdog against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, but that likely won't mean much to the players. The team wasn't favored against the 49ers or the Pittsburgh Steelers and still managed to pull out wins. They know their culture has propelled them to the top of the division, and as long as they remain all in on Rivera's message, they believe they can continue to thrive.

"You kind of feel that they're understanding what it takes," Rivera said. "To me, that's really starting to show some of the signs of how it is coming together."