‘I could be gone in a year, that’s football’: Is Rivera really going to trust his job with Howell?

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Ron Rivera has plenty of reasons why he’s comfortable with the prospect of Sam Howell as the Washington Commanders’ starter in 2023. For starters, he says he doesn’t see the second-year quarterback as a “wild shot” the way others do. He notes that Howell was considered a first-round talent a year before the Commanders picked him in the fifth round. He talks up Howell’s development and the salary-cap benefits of playing a quarterback who is still on his rookie-scale deal.

The explanations make sense, right? At least they do until you consider what’s at stake next season.

Is Ron Rivera, in what’s setting up to be a do-or-die year, really going to trust his job with Howell? Or even Jacoby Brissett? 

“I could be gone in a year, that’s football,” Rivera told The Washington Times. “I understand that. But what I want to do, is when I leave, I want everybody to go and say, ‘Boy the roster’s in a good place.’ … That’s great. I want to walk away saying that’s what I did. I’m good with it. I understand it.

“I’m not going to be desperate. I’m not. Because when you’re desperate, you make bad decisions.”

Entering his fourth season at the helm of the Commanders, Rivera is again bracing for change. Beyond a fourth different Week 1 starter in four seasons, the coach could also have a new boss — if a sale of the Commanders gets done in time for the beginning of the regular season. Commanders owner Dan Snyder has received at least two formal bids for the franchise as billionaires Josh Harris and Steve Apostolopoulos have each offered $6 billion.

An ownership change won’t be entirely new territory for Rivera. After all, he experienced a similar transition in Carolina when Jerry Richardson sold the Panthers to David Tepper for a then-record $2.2 billion in 2018.

That time has given Rivera perspective — and an understanding of what’s required when a new owner comes in. Recalling the details of the Panthers’ sale last week, Rivera said there were stark differences in personality from one owner to the next.

With Richardson, Rivera said “it was just really I had to report to him,” whereas Tepper wanted “constant feedback and attention to things.” 

And the coach appears to wish that he would have handled it better the first time around. 

When the Panthers were sold, Rivera said he “didn’t do as well as I needed to” in laying out his vision for the franchise to the new owner. The biggest reason for that, Rivera said, was that he wasn’t in charge of football operations as he is in Washington. He didn’t feel as if he could map out a three-year, five-year plan as well then as he can now, Rivera said. 

Rivera lasted all of 2018 with Tepper, but was fired a month before the 2019 season concluded. He said it was a learning experience.

“I’ve got to be very specific and very clear cut with what our vision is going forward,” Rivera said. “And it has to mesh. That’s one of the things I learned from (the Panthers change) is that not having it mesh, not having an explanation of what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it …  slows that process down. 

“When that opportunity comes, when I sit down (with new ownership) and go through the explanation, I’m going to be very concise.” 

Rivera said he’s now in a spot in which he can explain why the Commanders have done the things they’ve done — including their approach at quarterback. Washington’s plan for the position, to be clear, is dramatically different from the path it took a year ago when the team traded for veteran Carson Wentz, a move that did not work as planned. 

But the Commanders “learned a lot” from their pursuit of Wentz and the year informed how the team wanted to go about this offseason, Rivera said. Notably, the Commanders did not pursue former MVP Lamar Jackson because of the cost it would take for the signal-caller to leave the Baltimore Ravens. And Rivera and Co. were pleased with how Howell developed behind the scenes in practice. 

“If we took all that tape and we put it all together, I think people would sit there and say, ‘Wow, this guy’s pretty damn good,’” Rivera said. “I really believe that. And if we have to do that to do a presentation with a (new) ownership, I’d be happy to.”

It’s putting a lot of faith in a player with only one career start — and who will still have to outright earn the job in training camp and the preseason.

Talking with reporters at the owners meetings in Phoenix recently, Rivera wouldn’t rule out drafting a quarterback with the 16th overall pick or playing Brissett if the veteran earns the job. He also acknowledged that if a new ownership group wants Washington to pursue other quarterback options once taking over, “we’d have to most certainly.” But for now, Washington appears set on giving Howell a legitimate shot to be the starter. 

Team President Jason Wright has called next season a “must-win year” for Rivera, and there has been speculation already about what a new ownership group will mean for the coach.

In February, Broncos coach Sean Payton revealed in a radio interview that prospective bidders approached him about becoming the Commanders’ coach before taking the job in Denver. “All of that was blown out of proportion,” Payton said last week. “Ron and I are good friends.” 

Rivera, though, saw the initial remarks. They didn’t bother him, he said. 

“A lot of things get said during periods like that,” Rivera said. “If you get caught up in that, you just wasted your energy. I’m not going to waste my energy.” 

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