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Ron Rivera hiring in Washington could be a game-changer in NFL

If Rivera succeeds in new gig, he could blaze a new trail for coaches of color

ASHBURN, Va. – The latest reboot of Washington’s NFL franchise is like none before, with a head coach of color empowered to lead the team. And if Ron Rivera succeeds where many others have failed, he could prove to be a game-changer.

Owner Daniel Snyder pursued Rivera, the first non-interim head coach of color in franchise history in the modern era. And he did it as much to cleanse Washington’s toxic culture as to win football games, having apparently learned the hard way that success on game day is inexorably linked to the environment at work throughout the week that precedes it. Considering Rivera’s credentials (he’s a two-time Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year), it’s not surprising that Snyder has entrusted him with such a heavy lift. Still, the move is noteworthy because coaches of color have rarely climbed so high in the history of a league commemorating its 100th season.

Rivera, who led the Carolina Panthers to an NFC title, becomes the undisputed leader of Washington’s entire football operation. Regardless of how responsibilities and titles are assigned in the club’s restructured front office, what’s most important is this: Rivera will make the final call on, well, everything. He’ll have both contractual authority and a mandate from Snyder to right a ship that has been rudderless.

Rivera’s first task is to undo the damage caused by former team president and general manager Bruce Allen, whose 10-year tenure only strengthens the well-founded belief that Washington is among professional sports’ most poorly run franchises. Allen lacked an understanding of what it takes to build a championship culture.

Snyder replaced a tone-deaf administrator with someone who has thrived at the game’s highest heights as a player, assistant coach and head coach. Along the way, Rivera learned what it takes to unite an organization in pursuit of sustained success.

Rod Graves of the Fritz Pollard Alliance has watched the process unfold. Graves is in his first year as the primary decision-maker for the group that advises the NFL on matters of diversity and inclusion and which assists the league in enforcing the Rooney Rule. But 35 years ago, he worked for the Chicago Bears when they selected the former University of California linebacker in the 1984 draft. It didn’t take long for Graves, who previously served as an NFL general manager and a high-ranking league official, to realize that Rivera is a leader with a commanding presence, who others would eagerly follow.

“Ron is an outstanding coach, but he’s so much more than that,” Graves said. “He’s very aware of what needs to go on in an organization, and not only from a coaching level, to win. He’s just very much in tune with what you have to build, the environment you have to create, to accomplish what you want to accomplish.”

At the end of the 2018 season, there were eight head-coaching vacancies. Seven of those positions went to white coaches. Compared to the previous hiring cycle, this one is already off to a smashing start with Rivera’s quick comeback. Assistant coaches of color seek positive reinforcement about their potential mobility within the league and Rivera’s new gig helps.

After a long, successful run as the Panthers’ on-field leader, Rivera was fired with four games remaining this season. In 2015, the Panthers went 15-1 and reached the Super Bowl. Rivera, who held the position since 2011, was selected the Associated Press’ coach of the year after the 2013 and ’15 seasons.

The last two seasons, however, quarterback Cam Newton was often ineffective or sidelined because of injuries. It was time for Rivera to move on, and he moved into a situation where he’ll wield – and there’s no sugarcoating this – an uncommon amount of power in the NFL for someone who isn’t white. The significance for the league of Rivera having so much authority in Washington isn’t lost on Graves.

“For many reasons, it’s very important,” Graves said. “It makes a humongous statement about the leadership capabilities of men of color. To invest confidence in that type of leadership and role, and to give it to a person of color, simply states that people of color can do the job just as effectively as anyone else. Anyone looking at the situation can clearly see the significance of what has happened.”

To be sure, in its recent history, the NFL has had influential head coaches of color. Hall of Famer Tony Dungy, for starters. Still firmly entrenched with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Tomlin may have done his best work in his 13th season. Rivera, too, had significant juice with Carolina.

In Rivera’s new position, however, he has the authority to operate with autonomy, if he so chooses. In terms of NFL coaches of color wielding so much clout in an organization, the position Tom Flores once occupied with the Seattle Seahawks seems most comparable.

The first minority head coach to win a Super Bowl (he accomplished the feat twice with the Oakland Raiders), Flores in 1989 became the president and general manager of the Seahawks. He later returned to the field before being fired after three sub-.500 seasons. That brings us back to Rivera.

If Rivera thrives at the top of Washington’s organizational chart, his success could prompt other owners to hire and empower more coaches and executives of color. Chris Grier of the Miami Dolphins is the only African American general manager, so there’s even more room for improvement on the executive front than in coaching.

Of course, it won’t be easy for Rivera, the seventh non-interim head coach Snyder has hired. The franchise is 142-193-1 under Snyder, who has been known to meddle in football decisions despite telling other coaches he would stay out of their way. (Ask Mike Shanahan about that.)

“It’s a big job and he can handle it,” Graves said. “He’s going to do a great job.”

Washington’s NFL team has a new boss. He’s unlike all who came before him. And if Rivera can actually fix this mess, he could blaze a path for others at a time when one is sorely needed.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.