Can Washington Commanders head coach Ron Rivera rid the franchise of their recent post-bye week blues at the Los Angeles Rams?
During his 64 games as head coach of the Washington Commanders - regardless of the team’s nickname at the time - Ron Rivera has presided over five separate stretches in which he's lost at least four games in a row. They come out of this year’s bye week in the midst of one of them, having lost four straight since eking out a three-point win over the New England Patriots over a month ago.
Think about those numbers for a moment. In the 64 games that he has coached, 21 of them have been losses that occurred as part of a month-long losing streak. Five separate occasions during a span that covers 16 months.
To be fair, Rivera has countered that with two unlikely long winning streaks, one of which propelled the team to the playoffs in his first season. In light of these numbers, I think the appropriate adjective to describe his tenure in Washington would be streaky.
Commanders have a tough challenge in Week 15
Sadly, the losing streaks far outnumber the winning streaks. There is a very real possibility his career with the Commanders could end on an eight-game run of failure.
The Commanders will attempt to prevent that this Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams. However, it seems unlikely.
The Rams are a heavy favorite. They are playing at home against a team that has not covered the point spread in over a month. Los Angeles, who is in playoff contention, have covered three straight spreads.
Running back Kyren Williams is healthy and putting up big numbers. It is scary to imagine what he might do against a defense that lost its only adequate linebacker when Jamin Davis was placed on injured reserve this week. Matthew Stafford has both Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua as healthy as they have been all season. This bodes ill for Washington’s beleaguered secondary.
On defense, the Rams have been a middling unit this year, but they still have Aaron Donald. Thinking about the Commanders' interior offensive line facing off against him and Kobie Turner is the stuff of nightmares.
Then there’s the issue of the bye. The Rams had theirs six weeks ago. The Commanders have had two full weeks to rest up and prepare.
In theory, that should be an advantage for the Commanders. Teams coming off a bye this season have won two-thirds of their games. That is a bit higher than usual, but it isn’t too far off. Teams coming off byes typically have a significant advantage.
Of course, that hasn’t applied to Rivera’s Commanders. In his three seasons, Washington is 1-2 coming out of their bye week.
There was the disastrous 23-20 loss to the New York Giants in 2020 in which Alex Smith threw three interceptions and they lost the turnover battle 5-0. Then there was the even more confounding 20-12 home loss to the G-Men last season. The defeat was the first of a three-game skid that knocked them out of a playoff spot that seemed a lock beforehand.
If you’re looking for hope this afternoon, you can recall the one huge bye-week success in Rivera’s tenure. In 2021, Washington went into their bye week at 2-6. They had lost four straight, all by at least a touchdown. On the season, they were carrying a negative point differential of almost 10 points per game. That’s a figure that only the worst teams in the league flirt with.
And they were taking on the defending Super Bowl champions.
Commanders have achieved one post-bye win under Ron Rivera
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were admittedly struggling at the time. But for Tom Brady, this meant sitting at 6-2 and atop the NFC South. Plus, the Bucs were also coming off a bye, and they were angry after having lost a divisional game to the New Orleans Saints in their last outing.
Still, Washington came out hot. The defense forced a three and out on Brady and DeAndre Carter returned the punt to the 40-yard-line. Taylor Heinicke led a short drive that resulted in a field goal and a Washington lead. Then, the defense picked off Brady in two consecutive series to give them a 13-0 advantage. After another slew of field goals in the second quarter, they went into halftime with a 16-6 lead.
The third quarter began with Tampa’s defense stuffing Washington. Brady began warming up and soon it was 16-13. Then, lo and behold, Heinicke led a beautiful long scoring drive, highlighted by a big third down conversion to John Bates.
Still, when Heinicke fumbled in Washington territory early in the fourth quarter, it only took Brady three plays to get another touchdown. There was just under 11 minutes left and most fans were sensing a familiar script being played out.
What followed was the greatest quarter of Rivera’s tenure. It was just one drive, but it was such a magnificent one that I wrote an entire article about it after the game. Heinicke led Washington on a 19-play, 80-yard series that resulted in a touchdown. Most importantly, it used all but 29 seconds of the game clock.
It was perfect football. The now-Commanders converted three third downs and a fourth down. That was the final play, a one-yard plunge by Antonio Gibson for the final score.
That game, and the entire drive, proved that Washington was capable of achieving big things under Rivera. It kicked off a four-game win streak that got them back to .500 and in the thick of the postseason picture.
Then they proceeded to lose four straight against division opponents by a total of 63 points and the season was effectively over. Did I mention that Rivera’s time here has been streaky?
I was rewatching that game before I wrote this and something jumped out at me. Heinicke completed 26 passes on the day. Fifteen of them went to players no longer on the roster. Those two interceptions that opened the game were made by players no longer around. The quarterback who engineered the drive is backing up Desmond Ridder on the Atlanta Falcons.
I cannot argue that any of those players should still be here. I wish the team had re-signed Carter and I wish J.D. McKissic had not gotten hurt. But most of them left under typical circumstances.
What is undeniable though is that when the Commanders had these players, just two years ago, they did not give up. Even in the middle of a demoralizing losing streak.
That has been one of the hallmarks of Rivera’s teams. He and his staff have done a demonstrably poor job of preparing his team for games. Their first quarters and their post-bye week performances are a testament to that. But they have always fought hard.
We are going to find out later today whether this current group of players and this potentially lame-duck coaching staff, have the same fight in them.