LANDOVER, Md., — Ever since Washington coach Ron Rivera announced his cancer diagnosis last month, he harped on the notion that, when he wasn’t around, others had to take charge.
Quarterback Dwayne Haskins did just that Sunday. And the defense took it from there.
With Rivera needing a previously planned intravenous treatment at halftime of Sunday’s 27-17 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, and unable to talk to his players, Haskins delivered a tight spiral of a message to his teammates. With Washington trailing by 10 points, Haskins said he kept his message simple, telling the players:
“We’re home. They’re the visitors. There’s no reason why we should be feeling like we’re little bro to them in a sense. For me it was find a way to win.”
Which, of course, they did. After an offseason of turnover, chaos and negative attention, the Washington Football Team delivered what Rivera and the organization needed most: a comeback win. While Haskins delivered the speech, it was the defense that led the win. Washington recorded eight sacks of Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz as the team snapped a six-game losing streak against the Eagles.
“We have had a tough offseason,” Rivera said. “But I just love the resilience of these young men.”
It was Rivera’s first game coaching Washington after nine years in Carolina. He’s had to deal with not only a pandemic and social justice issues, but also a name change, accusations of sexual harassment in the organization from previous years and his own cancer diagnosis. Rivera missed practice on Tuesday for his first chemotherapy and proton treatment. He needs to have five treatments a week for seven weeks. The organization knew what he went through, which is why Rivera received a game ball afterward.
“I’m praying for him,” said corner Jimmy Moreland, who had one of Washington’s two interceptions. “To see him come to our team… it’s a great feeling.”
Rivera said the intravenous treatment at halftime was planned because they just wanted to be safe. While he was in another room, Rivera let it be known he might not return to the locker room in time to say anything to his players.
“I told one of our operations guys somebody’s going to have to make sure somebody steps up to the podium,” Rivera said. “Dwayne stepped up and it was a pretty ruckus one from what I understand.”
Rookie end Chase Young, who finished with 1.5 sacks in his first game, added: “It definitely hyped us up in the locker room, for sure. I know the speech that he gave, I took it to heart. I know a lot of people in the locker room took it to heart, as well.”
Through all of the offseason travails, Rivera had said he just wanted Washington to play good football, knowing it would take time to rebuild a team that went 3-13 a year ago. He also called this first game a measuring stick. If that’s the case, Washington measured out quite well — at least for the final two quarters.
Rivera has preached a desire to move on from the past; Haskins said it can help propel them to where they want to go.
“That’s the biggest thing with the past is knowing that it’s going to make us better,” Haskins said. “Knowing that, we should use whatever we’ve been through prior to it — name changing or coaching or whatever the situation or whatever it may be — that we’re going to come together every day on Sunday and find a way to win the game, regardless of the situation or what we’ve been through.”
What they went through Sunday was torturous early in the game. Philadelphia scored on three of its first four possessions as Washington struggled in all facets. Its defense allowed big plays, jumped offside at inopportune times and made life easy for the Eagles’ offense.
Rivera had preached all summer to his players about the mindset needed to play a strong game for four quarters. He chastised them — loudly — after bad practices and praised them for any improvement.
Still, the turnaround Sunday seemed unlikely when Philadelphia took over with 1 minute, 44 seconds remaining in the first half and owning the three-score lead.
From that point forward, Washington dominated. The Eagles gained 175 yards in the first half; they finished with 265 for the game. Washington running back Peyton Barber broke a 17-17 tie with a 3-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. It came two plays after Rivera eschewed an easy field goal by going for it on fourth-and-1. Barber picked it up — barely. But by that point Washington was playing with confidence and Rivera, who earned the nickname Riverboat Ron in Carolina for his aggressive ways, capitalized on the momentum.
“I did that because I wanted the guys to make sure they understood I believed in them,” Rivera said. “My first couple years [in Carolina], I made that mistake of not showing them early enough that I believed in them.”