Should the Commanders fire Ron Rivera in addition to Scott Turner?

Oct 2, 2022; Arlington, Texas, USA; Washington Commanders head coach Ron Rivera watches the game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Commanders during the second half at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 2, 2022; Arlington, Texas, USA; Washington Commanders head coach Ron Rivera watches the game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Commanders during the second half at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

You can easily make the case that the Washington Commanders should fire head coach Ron Rivera. The case begins with the fact that Rivera has not produced a winning season in his three years with Washington. It is bolstered by the fact that over a 12-year career, Rivera has only managed a winning season three times. They were all with MVP-candidate quarterback Cam Newton. And you end with the dismal performance against the Cleveland Browns in week 17 of the 2022 season – a game in which the decision to start Carson Wentz at quarterback proved disastrous.

The case for keeping Rivera is that despite frustrating performances, his teams never quit on him. Despite having inferior quarterback play, he has, for the most part, kept his teams in playoff contention. And his steadying effect on a morally bankrupt, dysfunctional franchise has been priceless. Rivera is a genuine responsible adult – something this franchise has lacked in positions of leadership for much of Daniel Snyder’s ownership.

So there is a debate to be had. But why bother? It is delusional to think the Washington Commanders will fire Ron Rivera with a sale likely being negotiated. It is delusional to think that any sale could be completed quickly enough to allow new owners the opportunity to jettison Rivera before the 2023 season. Snyder faced a similar conundrum when he bought the team back in 1999. He wanted to get rid of head coach Norv Turner, but timing prevented it. So he waited – two years as it turned out due to Turner’s unexpected success in the 1999 season.

Speaking of Norv Turner, his son Scott, Washington’s offensive coordinator for the last three seasons, was fired on Tuesday. Whispers hinted that Turner would end up the fall-guy for the Commanders’ end-of-season shortcomings, and that came to fruition 24 hours after after Black Monday.

Should Rivera also get handed the pink slip?

Should the Commanders fire Ron Rivera after they canned Scott Turner?

Beyond stability, there are a couple other reasons why Washington should not fire Ron Rivera this year. Barring an Urban Meyer/Nathaniel Hackett-style train wreck, the first question you have to ask when considering moving on from the current coach is this: Who are you likely to get to replace him?

I did a story mid-season ranking my top 15 choices. With a few possible exceptions, I am convinced none of those candidates would accept the job in Washington with ownership in limbo. It’s simply a bad move for any young coach. It is likely to derail your career before it ever gets started. It is possible that Washington could find a decent veteran coach who might crave one final chance to lead a team, but that would largely be a sideways move from Rivera.

Complicating the situation for an incoming coach is the virtual certainty that Sam Howell will be the team’s Day-1 starter in 2023. I suppose there are scenarios under which that would not be the case. (Lamar Jackson, anyone?) But those scenarios are all longshots. Is a new coach going to be willing to suffer the growing pains of a virtual rookie?

And even if the ownership issue were resolved and the quarterback situation were beginning to look up, it remains dangerous to fire Rivera at this point. That’s because, in the words of screenwriting legend William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride…) “Nobody knows anything.”

Here comes the data analysis part of the discussion. Skip to the end if that kind of thing bores you. But I wouldn’t. I find this fascinating.

Ten teams had new coaches in 2022. Of them, four had winning records in 2021 (Miami, Las Vegas, Denver, Tampa Bay). Health and/or burn out caused two of those coaches to step away (Arians, Payton). In Miami, Brian Flores appeared to have conflicts with upper management and was surprisingly terminated. In Las Vegas, Rich Bisaccia, who could have easily been selected Coach of the Year, simply didn’t look like the head coach of a football team – especially one set in Vegas.

How did those teams fare?

Only one had a winning record in 2022. The Dolphins, under Mike McDaniel matched their 9-8 mark from 2021. The other all regressed – at least in terms of record – significantly.

Of the six teams with losing records in 2021, three improved while three regressed. That’s actually to be expected. What’s notable is that the three teams that improved showed MAJOR improvement, with all of them making the playoffs.

That kind of success might seem like an argument for getting a new coach in Washington.

But then there’s this – from the “Nobody knows anything” school of thought.

Former player and scout Bucky Brooks predicted the likely success of all ten new coaches prior to the 2022 season. He based this largely on the quality of the team, and partly on the compatibility of coach and roster. He got it almost entirely wrong.

His top five rated situations – where he thought coaches would have the best chance for success – had compiled a combined record of 48-37 in 2021. In 2022, those teams’ records fell to 35-50. (I’m counting the entire Bronco season, even though Hackett did not survive the year. Makes the math easier.)

On the flip side, the worst five situations went 25-60 in 2021, and improved to 37-46-2 in 2022.

In other words, where he thought there would be success, there was more than a ten-game regression, and where he saw likely trouble, there was more than a 10-game improvement. This is true even though he got the two worst situations – Houston and Chicago – exactly right, and those two teams seriously pull down their group’s average.

The other three teams in his bottom tier – remember, these are the teams that Brooks predicted would not do well with a new coach in 2022 – they are the only three teams with new coaches in 2022 who actually did improve – and three of four that posted winning records. They are also three of the five teams on this list that made the playoffs.

I can draw lots of conclusions from this to both support and discredit the idea of firing Rivera. That’s the point. Nobody knows anything. I think I have a good sense of who would work and who wouldn’t. For instance, I disagreed with Brooks when he ranked Vegas as having the second-best new coaching situation because I witnessed how ineffective Josh McDaniels had been in Denver. I also disagreed with ranking the Jacksonville situation number eight, because I similarly witnessed how good Doug Pederson had been in Philly.

On the other hand, I would have rated Denver as the single best situation (Brooks had it 4th), and I would have been dead, dead wrong. I would have made the exact same mistakes Brooks made in underrating Brain Daboll and Kevin O’Connell.

So perhaps the Washington Commanders would perform better in 2023 with a different man calling the shots. But that’s certainly not a given. And with the current ownership situation severely limiting the team’s likely choices, now is not the time for a Hail Mary. This is a pretty good roster with an intriguing young quarterback. I know “stay the course” is just about the most boring slogan in existence, but in this case, it’s the smart move.