Analysis | The Ron Rivera era in Washington was even worse than you think

Ron Rivera’s time in Washington ended with the Commanders’ regular season finale Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, at which point the retrospectives began.

Rivera was a steadying influence during a tumultuous first year that included a pandemic, the first investigation into the franchise’s toxic workplace culture and Rivera’s own cancer diagnosis. He guided the team to an improbable NFC East title despite a 7-9 record that season, but failed to finish above. 500 or qualify for the postseason in any season since, and the franchise’s search for a long-term answer at quarterback continues.

Rivera leaves the Commanders as the final coach hired by former owner Daniel Snyder, who oversaw nearly a quarter-century of failure. Rivera’s tenure, sadly, fit right in.

If the Commanders seek a new coach, these names could be on their list

Rivera’s teams over his four years were 4.3 points worse than an average team per game after adjusting their margin of victory for strength of schedule, according to Pro Football Reference’s Simple Rating System. That’s actually worse than the franchise managed under Jim Zorn, the oft-mocked coach who followed Joe Gibbs’s second go-round in Washington. Of coaches Snyder hired who lasted more than one season, only Jay Gruden (4.6 points fewer per game than an average team) and Steve Spurrier (5.1 points fewer per game than an average team) posted worse numbers. Washington’s adjusted margin of victory during Rivera’s tenure ranked 26th in the NFL.

Gibbs was clearly the most — or perhaps only — successful coach of the Snyder era, according to both record and the Simple Rating System. Gibbs’s teams were 30-34 (a .469 winning percentage) and were 0.8 points better than an average team per game during his second stint with Washington, which included playoff appearances after the 2005 and 2007 seasons. Washington finished plus-6.0 and plus-4.5 in 2005 and 2007, the two best seasons of the Snyder era by SRS.

Perhaps surprisingly, Zorn’s teams posted the second-best average margin of victory adjusted for strength of schedule (minus-3.2) among this group of coaches, followed by Mike Shanahan (minus-3.5) and Rivera. (Gruden’s .418 winning percentage, on the other hand, was second-best behind Gibbs of coaches hired under Snyder who lasted at least two years.)

Washington finished this season with the third-worst raw point differential in a single season in franchise history, albeit in a 17-game campaign. The Carolina Panthers, according to ESPN, were the first NFL team to be shut out in back-to-back games since 2008. They still had a better final point differential than Commanders.

The Commanders were 11.1 points per game worse than an average team this season, which is the fourth-worst performance by the franchise since it was founded in 1932. The three worst campaigns occurred before the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

Shanahan’s worst team in Washington — the 2013 squad that finished 3-13 — was 9.3 points per game worse than an average team. Zorn’s worst season was 2009, when the burgundy and gold were 4.6 points worse per game than an average team and finished 4-12. Washington was only 1.8 points worse than an average team per game in 2008, Zorn’s first season at the helm.

Here’s a closer look at how Rivera’s tenure stacks up against Washington’s non-interim coaches not named Gibbs since 2002. Coaches are ranked based on their average margin of victory adjusted for strength of schedule during their tenures.

Zorn was originally hired to be Washington’s offensive coordinator, but was promoted to head coach after Snyder decided against hiring Jim Fassel.

Highlight: During a 4-1 start to Zorn’s first season, Washington celebrated wins at Dallas and Philadelphia in consecutive weeks with chants of “hip, hip, hooray.”

Lowlight: No, it wasn’t bringing former NFL offensive coordinator and part-time senior center bingo caller Sherman Lewis out of retirement to serve as an offensive consultant in 2009. Before Lewis’s arrival, the offense scored an estimated eight points fewer per game than expected (26th) after accounting for each play, per data from TruMedia. Washington had an average offense from Weeks 7 to 17, coinciding with Lewis’s tenure. The real defining moment of Zorn’s tenure came in a 45-12 home loss to the Giants on “Monday Night Football” in Week 15 of that 4-12 season, when Washington ran the infamous “Swinging Gate.”

Quotable: “They all got their gear all ready, and so they’re going to be all colored up in the maroon and black and yellow,” Zorn said at his introductory news conference in February 2008, referring to his family and apparently confused about Washington’s burgundy and gold color scheme.

Snyder hired Shanahan, who won two Super Bowls in Denver, to replace Zorn in 2010. Outside of Robert Griffin III’s magical rookie season in 2012, Shanahan’s four years in Washington were a failure. Shanahan’s Washington teams ranked 23rd in points per drive and 22nd in red-zone offense. Washington’s quarterbacks ranked 21st in passer rating (81.0) under Shanahan.

Highlight: Behind Griffin and rookie running back Alfred Morris, Washington beat the Cowboys, 28-18, on “Sunday Night Football” in the 2012 regular season finale to clinch its first NFC East title since 1999.

Lowlight: In Shanahan’s first season, Washington lost to the Eagles, 59-28, on “Monday Night Football.” The rout came on the same day Washington announced a five-year contract extension for quarterback Donovan McNabb.

Quotable: “I take full responsibility for this game today,” Shanahan said after a 45-10 loss to the Chiefs at home in Week 14 of his final season. “I didn’t have the players ready to play.”

With Sunday’s loss, Rivera fell to 26-40-1 in Washington and 102-103-2 in his NFL coaching career.

Highlight: In Week 13 of the 2020 season, Washington overcame an early 14-0 deficit to upset the previously undefeated Steelers, 23-17, in Pittsburgh. It was Washington’s third of four consecutive wins after a 2-7 start, and it helped propel the team to a division title.

Lowlight: Rivera’s teams were on the wrong end of several embarrassing blowouts, but last season’s home loss to Cleveland in Week 17 after Rivera opted to start Carson Wentz over Taylor Heinicke with a playoff berth on the line was rock bottom.

Quotable: “We can be eliminated?” Rivera, seemingly unaware that Washington’s playoff hopes were about to be dashed, asked a reporter during his postgame news conference following the loss to the Browns.

Gruden was the longest-tenured and winningest coach of the Snyder era, but the franchise only made the playoffs once in his five full seasons at the helm.

Highlight: The Kirk Cousins-led comeback — “You like that?! — in a game Gruden described as a “code-red” situation is up there, but the best moment of Gruden’s tenure came two months later, when Washington clinched the NFC East title with a 38-24 win over the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Developing Cousins, a fourth-round pick by Shanahan in 2012, was one of Gruden’s greatest achievements.

Lowlight: Washington needed to beat the Giants, who had nothing left to play for, in the 2016 regular season finale to clinch a second consecutive playoff berth for the first time since 1992. Washington lost, 19-10, after Cousins threw a crucial late-game interception.

Quotable: “If the key works Monday, I’ll keep working,” Gruden said after Washington fell to 0-5 with a 33-7 loss to the New England Patriots in 2019. Snyder fired Gruden the next morning.

One of Snyder’s many mistakes was firing Marty Schottenheimer after one season and replacing him with Spurrier, who had spent the previous 12 years at the University of Florida and had no NFL coaching experience.

Highlight: Washington defeated Tom Brady and the Patriots in Week 4 of Spurrier’s second season to improve to 3-1. It was one of two losses the eventual Super Bowl champions suffered that season.

Lowlight: Washington went 2-10 over the remainder of the 2003 season, including a 27-0 home loss to the Cowboys in Week 15. Tim Hasselbeck threw four interceptions as part of Washington’s six turnovers.

Quotable: “We wound up 5-11,” Spurrier said at his farewell news conference. “Not very good. But there were some worse than us. I guess that’s one positive way to look at it.”

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