Rivera Strong: Washington in hunt, rallying around its coach

Ron Rivera rang the bell signifying his final treatment for squamous cell carcinoma and walked out of the Inova Schar Cancer Institute to a round of applause.

Rivera may be finished with his battle against a form of skin cancer, but he’s not done inspiring players in his first season as Washington’s coach. The 58-year-old fighting cancer has defined the start of this season, which has Washington in the thick of a division race at 2-5 at its bye week because of the sorry state of the NFC East — and ready to continue rallying around Rivera, whose toughness has rubbed off on his team.

“You look at what he’s going through daily in his life right now and the fact that he comes here every day willing to be here with us and operate in a way that he’s still our head coach and we still feel him as our head coach, it’s an inspiration just to come in here every day and to give your best,” longtime starting right tackle Morgan Moses said this week. “How can you not suit up on every Sunday and play for a guy like that?”

Rivera never wanted this to be about him. He bristled at continued questions about his cancer diagnosis and the toll of undergoing treatment during a pandemic, and wanted things to be “business as usual.”

They were, at least in the rare cases Rivera couldn’t run practice, and he didn’t miss a single game. Before his final treatment Monday, the veteran NFL head coach said he’s looking forward to just doing his job again without his health being a factor.

“The hard part is I get my treatment, I come back, do a couple things, then I have to take a break before practice,” Rivera said . “It’s hard trying to map everything out. Traditionally, you’re here until 8:30, 9:30, 11 o’clock at night. I hit 5 o’clock and I’ve got to go home. The fatigue, really, like I told my wife, is having a 300-pound gorilla on my back.”

Rivera still needs additional tests and checkups, but the gorilla is off his back two months after feeling something was off during a self check and getting diagnosed. Assistant coaches saw Rivera go to work despite his energy level being low, and that alone gave them and players extra motivation.

“His strength is unmatched,” offensive coordinator Scott Turner said. “We’re here for him and really happy for him that he’s pushed through that. I think everybody, whether it’s our support staff or our coaching staff or our players, we’re all behind coach.”

Rivera’s tenure in Washington hasn’t been without its bumps, like benching 2019 first-round pick Dwayne Haskins and installing Kyle Allen as the starting quarterback. His shift in approach from building for the future to attempting to win now because the division is so weak drew more questions.

But Rivera is looking prescient after blowing out the Dallas Cowboys 25-3 and seeing the Philadelphia Eagles struggle to beat the New York Giants. Washington can’t be more than 1 1/2 games out of first place by the time it hosts the Giants on Nov. 8, so the belief is strong that this rebuilding team can contend now.

“The division, it’s in a scramble right now: We’re 2-5 and the division is wide open,” said Moses, who has gotten to play in one playoff game in five full seasons as a starter. “Our job right now is to take care of our division opponents and win this division and what happens is what happens.”

That was Rivera’s approach when he turned to Allen, who followed him from Carolina after an offseason trade. While there’s plenty of young talent accumulating on offense with rookie running back Antonio Gibson and second-year receiver Terry McLaurin. And on defense with No. 2 pick Chase Young and fellow pass rusher Montez Sweat, Allen exemplifies Rivera’s grind-it-out attitude.

“He’s setting the example for us and it’s right in front of our eyes, and I just want to do my part, and I think everyone on this team wants to do their part, too, and transfer that onto the field,” Allen said. “You want to see that toughness, you want to see that grit, you want to see that fight. And there’s going to be mistakes made. We’re a young team and new coaching staff, but we can overcome those mistakes by fighting hard.”

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