ASHBURN, go. — The Washington soccer team was 2-7 in November and didn’t seem to be going anywhere, even during the East NFC game. A bad team in a terrible league.
Yet Washington has expressed hope. Coach Ron Rivera said the team could win the division, a remark that often frowned the eyebrows and laughter – even though it was mathematically correct.
Then Washington won four games in a row. The smile died.
And then it became clear: Don’t bet against a team whose coach underwent a full season of cancer treatment and whose quarterback Alex Smith had to undergo 17 surgeries in order to run and play again.
Those are two main reasons why Washington (7-9) won NFC East and will receive the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) in Saturday’s wild-card round (8:15 p.m., NBC) – an inspiration and a unifying element for a team coming out of a chaotic 3-13 season in 2019.
There are other reasons: the addition of Chase Young (no. 2) as a defensive end, for example. A scout worker who has helped to create a base of young talent. The assistants, who had fallen at rest while Rivera was concentrating on the treatment, were tired.
But Rivera’s battle with paving cell carcinoma and Smith’s journey to the game gave a boost to a team that had been operating on empty stomachs for several years.
Their stories made Washington easy for the cheerleaders and transformed a franchise that was despised or ridiculed – for its old name, for its off-the-field problems – into a more sympathetic franchise.
It brought us all together, said Washington downtown Chase Ruller. We can’t be together in meetings. Usually we go out to dinner and do something like a line, like a team, and we didn’t have that. Taking care of something, something complicated, like the team we went through helped.
Calling the building
Fault! The file name is not specified. Ron Rivera, the coach ofWashington, has been more active and involved in training since completing his cancer treatment in October and regaining some of his strength. Bill Streicher/US Sports Today
It wasn’t always nice for Washington, which had to beat a decimated Philadelphia team in week 17 to win the division. She lost to Carolina, who was 4-10 years old last week.
Washington has always been in double digits this season – 11 times to be exact. Among them, they won twice and got the ball five more times with a chance to win too late. In other words: The team was just as tough as the coach.
He’s a tough guy, said assistant defense coach Richard Rodgers, who’s been working with Rivera since 2012. That’s what he’s proposing to the team. He calls it calligraphy. There are things that players don’t always like to do, so it creates a bubble in your team. It’s important to him.
Many players said they were watching the ESPN 11 documentary about Smith’s recovery from an open fracture of his right leg during the Houston Texans game in 2018.
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They also saw Rivera participate in the training while undergoing procedures that made him so tired he had to be brought home. It changed the way Rivera wanted to coach, he was less direct. He sat in a golf cart during many workouts, could not communicate with players due to fatigue and was sick of cancer during VIDOC-19, which canceled off-season programs, pre-season games and forced meetings conducted by videoconference.
This team didn’t feel real at first, Rodgers said. But this team looking at him understood when he said that we’re going to have opportunities, that we’re going to win and that we’re going to change the culture; they saw it up close because they saw what he was going through. He was consistent in what he wanted to do.
Just like Smith. The team followed him.
It helped, Rivera said, especially to see what Alex has been through and only his desire and eagerness to come back and play the joy and excitement he feels. It was very inspiring for me to look at it. I like to think that what I’ve been through plays, in a way, a small role in this situation. You have to be touched to see these things. It’s very important to be a role model.
The players have been around Smith long enough to let the effect of his recovery wear off. He’s now their quarterback and leader. However, at training camp, Rivera said he heard players talking about him with a mixture of excitement and fear. Rivera said he’d hear his teammates say he loves the game. That’s why he’s here.
For me, it’s a tangible thing boys can learn from, Rivera said. If you don’t learn from him, maybe you don’t deserve to be here. This is a chance you won’t get soon. You deserve it. The fact that he’s worked his way up says it all for me.
Smith has a calf expression in the same leg where he broke his calf and tibia in November 2018. It has affected his mobility so much that Rivera is considering a quarterback rotation on Saturday. Yet Smith’s tenacity was noticed by his teammates.
Terry McLaurin, who returned after a week’s absence because of a sprained upper ankle, said he would be treated at 6 a.m. every morning. Smith was there, too.
To see a guy like him, who has gone through as much as he has and is still fighting and pushing himself to help this team, I can’t take credit for that,” said McLaurin on Sunday after the victory at the Eagles. I think I’m built that way. Being here with Alex and getting a victory [Sunday] after all we have been through as a team and what he has been through as an individual is pretty sweet.
Smith doesn’t want the focus to be just on his recovery. He has played eight games this season and won five of his six starts after his first defeat in week 5 against the Rams when starter Kyle Allen was injured. He has reached a point where it is about improving as a player and as a team, not about his history. He’s also not worried about his impact on his teammates.
I don’t pay much attention to it and I don’t see it. Of course, I take care of my business and my roles to the best of my ability, he said. If you kiss or talk to guys on the sidelines and in the dressing room and stuff like that, that’s the authenticity for me. It’s just about getting out there and helping us win.
Fault! The file name is not specified. During training camp, coach Ron Rivera (right) said he would hear his teammates talk about quarterback Alex Smith with a mixture of tension and fear. Jeff Burke/USA Today Sports
When Rivera regained strength, he also rediscovered his coaching career by participating in training sessions. Before videoconferencing protocol meetings became mandatory, Rivera would appear at meetings and hear, for example, how attacking linemen were injured by defensive quarterback calls – good or bad.
One thing I like about Coach Rivera is that you see the way he sets up the defense in Washington, Jonathan Allen said. It is important to see the leader of the team and the organization on the field, not just the man who sits and watches.
Rivera will take the risk that different groups will advise or monitor the technique.
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When your main bus looks at you, you take it to another level when it’s there, Washington defense said Thomas Davis Sr. After Coach Rivera did what he could after handling the case, the boys certainly bought more, invested more and paid more attention to the little things and did well.
Roullier said he couldn’t remember the date of the first training session when Rivera resumed practice. But there have been changes.
We did the toboggan drills we did for each exercise, and he was excited and barked a little lower to get us going, Rullier said. We haven’t heard that in weeks. Even though he barked at us, it was good for us to hear his reaction, to hear his passion.
On another occasion, Rivera met with the front row player to discuss a problem the player had with what he was asked to do. A source close to the actor said Rivera clarified the situation. It wasn’t much, but it was something Rivera couldn’t do very often when he was in treatment.
Smith’s recovery is rarely far removed from the thoughts of his teammates.
He fought so hard and succeeded so well that you don’t have to think much about it, says Roullier. But there’s always a constant reminder. If you look down and he comes in with braces, he reminds you of something. It gives you the look of a man who is our leader.
Although Washington had competitive players with a good attitude before the arrival of Rivera and the return of Smith, the addition of a coach and a quarterback to the Chemistry Department created a strong team.
It’s just the will of the team, said Morgan Moses of Washington. We’ve got brave boys.