Sometimes in the NFL, just like in life, it pays to be more lucky than good.
The latest and most salient embodiment of that maxim was Washington’s 20-14 win over Philadelphia on Sunday night. Washington did some good in what should be considered a massive building block win for head coach Ron Rivera, but it must be acknowledged that the reason Washington took that step was because of Philadelphia’s atrocious play and Doug Pederson’s bizarre decision-making.
The latter is what everyone was talking about before the game was even over, so much so that hometown writers were openly questioning whether Pederson was tanking the game either as a hedge against the upcoming Carson Wentz offseason carousel or so the Eagles could get the sixth pick in the upcoming draft instead of the ninth.
It’s easy to understand why. With Philly trailing by only three points in the third quarter, Pederson made a string of strange choices that likely had thousands of Giants fans — whose team was a Philly win away from making the playoffs — mentally devolving in real time in their homes like Jack Torrance in the “The Shining.”
I’m no Giants fan, but good gosh, it must have been brutal watching Pederson eschew a short field goal that would have tied the game at 17 for a fourth-down conversion attempt. You’ll never believe this, but they didn’t get it. Adding further insult, they watched Pederson inexplicably pull starter Jalen Hurts for Nate Sudfeld, whose lack of mobility negated the counter to Washington’s strong pass rush.
So when the game finally ended, and Washington prevailed, there were no shortage of calls for Pederson’s job from the Eagles’ passionate fan base, despite the fact Pederson’s decisions were exactly the kind of moves you make if you think you’ll be back on the job next season.
In many ways, it was the perfect ending for a miserable 2020, an ugly performance that provided no shortage of drama or controversy, not to mention the clamoring of the unlikely.
Yet none of that, bizarre as it was, should affect how we view this game from Washington’s standpoint.
This is why Ron Rivera is Coach of Year front-runner
It has been a year full of drama for Washington. Most of it is self-made, coming in the form of team owner Dan Snyder, the Dwayne Haskins fiasco, the name change, etc. Some of it is not, namely Rivera’s successful cancer battle. And for all the bad this organization has endured, the fact that Washington made the playoffs and won the NFC East for the first time since 2015 is a sign that Rivera might have this thing pointed in the right direction.
Rivera has done this all while receiving IVs at halftime of games and enduring seven weeks of chemo and proton therapy in late October. That should make him the Coach of the Year favorite, especially after another top candidate, Miami’s Brian Flores, failed to make the playoffs and Mike Tomlin’s Steelers stumbled to lose four of their last five games after going 11-0.
Why should Rivera, or any Washington fan for that matter, care that it took a different type of “Philly Special” to cinch it? Why should Rivera, or any Washington fan, care that it took the NFC East being historically bad to push 7-9 Washington in the playoffs, or even that Philly actively hurt its own chances of winning the regular-season finale?
One of the greatest football legacies of our time was helped by luck. Had that ridiculous “Tuck Rule” never been called in 2002, the Raiders likely beat the Patriots, which means Tom Brady doesn’t go to the Super Bowl and maybe, just maybe, he doesn’t become Tom Brady.
In that instance, it paid for the Patriots to be more lucky than good. And maybe the same can be said for this season’s Washington team.
Can WFT be Rivera’s latest version of his successful Panthers teams?
Besides, even though it’s a statistical rarity in the NFL for a sub-.500 team to make the playoffs, this isn’t the first time Rivera has done so. The last time came in the 2014 season, when his Panthers won a horrific NFC South by going 7-8-1. They even won a playoff game, beating the Arizona Cardinals at home.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see what Rivera was thinking earlier this season when he benched Haskins, who has since been released. Rivera thought that with the NFC East in shambles, this season's team could mirror what that Carolina team did, an experience that helped shape the Panthers’ Super Bowl run the following season during Cam Newton’s MVP year.
It’s not a perfect comparison. Rivera was in his fourth year on the job then (this is his first in Washington) and the year before was arguably more of a breakthrough, when they went 12-4 before losing in the divisional round.
But those Panthers and this Washington team had superb defenses. The Panthers ranked third in defensive DVOA in their Super Bowl season while this season’s group also ranks third. Rivera clearly understands the confidence that could be built within a young team by winning division titles and getting key playoff experience.
Washington’s home wild-card game on Saturday night against Tampa Bay is a no-risk proposition. WFT will even have a chance to advance in the NFC playoffs, especially if it wins the special teams battle and forces 43-year-old Tom Brady into obvious throwing situations against one of the league’s stingiest pass defenses (second in passing DVOA).
But hey, even if Washington loses, it will hardly be the end of the world. From a football-only standpoint, Rivera’s first year at the helm of the league’s most beleaguered franchise has been a success, especially if — and this is a big if, considering Snyder still owns the team — Rivera manages to tap into that 2015 Panthers magic.
If they do, we’ll all remember the brutal Sunday night win, where it paid to be more lucky than good. And that will be just fine, I’m sure, with anyone rooting for burgundy and gold.
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