Head coach Ron Rivera faced a pivotal decision that would have a drastic effect on the Washington Football Team's astounding comeback against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The score was tied, 17-17, with 7:26 left in the fourth quarter. Washington had taken over at the Eagles' 48-yard line and was in the midst of a 10-play drive. Dwayne Haskins Jr. had just scrambled for a one-yard gain, placing the ball at the Eagles' four-yard line for a 4th-and-1.
Rivera had two choices: he could either send out the field goal unit to try and take a 20-17 lead or risk going for it on fourth down. He considered kicking the field goal "for a second," but ultimately elected to keep the offense out on the field to keep the drive alive.
The risk paid off after a one-yard run from Peyton Barber, and two plays later he plowed ahead for a three-yard touchdown to give Washington a 24-17 lead. The team left FedExField with a 27-17 victory over the reigning NFC East division champions, and the players went home believing they had earned Rivera's trust.
"I did that to show the guys I really believe in them," Rivera said after the game. "My first couple years as a head coach, I made that mistake and not showing the team early enough that I believed in them and it took a little bit longer. I want these guys to know that I believe in them and I believe we could get that first down and they did."
Rivera received a firsthand look of what it's like to choose the safe play over the gutsy call early in his head coaching career. In his first two seasons with the Carolina Panthers, the team was 0-6 in games decided by five points or fewer.
Rivera also faced a similar situation to Sunday's during a Week 2 matchup against the Buffalo Bills in 2013. The Panthers were clinging to a 20-17 lead in the fourth quarter when the offense faced a 4th-and-1 at Buffalo's 21-yard line. Rivera sent out Graham Gano to extend the Panthers' lead to six, only for E.J. Manuel to direct a nine-play, 79-yard drive that gave the Bills a 24-23 advantage with two second left.
The conservative decision that day haunted Rivera; he was so focused on it that he even ran a red light and almost got sideswiped on his way home from the Panthers' facility. It was only after that game that he began to heed advice he received from John Madden about coaching too conservatively.
"Your biggest problem is you played by the book," Madden had said. "There is no book. Do what your instincts tell you. You've played enough football and coached enough to rely on your instincts."
Flash forward to Sunday's game against the Eagles, and there were a couple of thoughts flying through Rivera's head on the fourth-down call. His defense was playing well, giving him confidence Washington could get the ball back if the offense could not convert. If the offense got the first down, it would put the team in a better position to win the game. To Rivera, the gamble had favorable odds.
Still, the thought of taking the easy points lingered in Rivera's head, which made him hesitate. But then another thought crossed his mind: "Hey, forget it."
"We didn't come here to tie," Rivera said. "We came here to win a football game."
The play went to Barber, who found open space on the right edge and got the yard Washington needed to earn a first down. Rivera called it "a heck of an effort."
"It really put us in position to win this football game," he said.
Washington never trailed again following Barber's second touchdown of the day.
"There are a bunch of guys that really worked hard at it. We didn't have a lot to gauge on who we were or who we were going to become, but we got an opportunity to show and the guys did. I am pretty proud of who they are as a football team. Very proud of our organization."
Rivera and Washington do not intend to celebrate for long. In six days, they'll be playing the Arizona Cardinals, who won their season opener against the reigning NFC champion San Francisco 49ers.
But for now, Washington is 1-0. And when it comes to fourth-down conversions, "Riverboat Ron's" bets are paying off.