So the Eagles play the Washington [REDACTED] on Sunday, and for anyone old enough or familiar enough with pro football history, it’s always an enjoyable and intellectually jarring exercise to contrast the respect and esteem that Washington’s franchise once held around the NFL with its status today as arguably the league’s easiest and most deserving target for ridicule.
The 1991-92 season, for instance, might have been the high-water mark for the team. It went 14-2, finishing first in the league in offense and second in defense, then won its three postseason games, including Super Bowl XXVI, by an average of more than 20 points -- all with a journeyman, Mark Rypien, as its starting quarterback.
Its greatest strength, as was customary for Washington in that era, was its offensive line, which allowed just nine sacks all season. The Super Bowl victory was the team’s, and coach Joe Gibbs', third in nine years.
What a precipitous fall since. Thanks to owner Daniel Snyder, who bought the franchise in 1999, there’s now an entire generation of football fans who think of Washington only as a team that usually gets undressed on the field and an organization whose bro-dude power people wished more of their co-workers and subordinates did the same away from it.
» READ MORE: Previewing the Washington Football Team
The Washington Post has done some marvelous work this year to show that Snyder and his lackeys have aspired to create a workplace environment that closely resembles a Whitesnake music video from 1987. But was anyone really surprised by the sexual-harassment accusations and details contained in the Post’s reporting? Perhaps by the degree of the allegations, but probably not that allegations surfaced. This is Dan Snyder. This is his franchise, the one that overpays past-their-prime players, that oversaw the quick disintegration of Robert Griffin III’s promising career, and that only recently ditched its offensive nickname. You expect the worst.
There’s some heavy rehabilitating to be done, if it’s even possible to be done. The man charged with carrying out a good bit of it and with being the public face for all of it is the team’s new coach, Ron Rivera. To be fair to Snyder, there were worse choices he could have made for the position. Rivera, whose first NFL job was in 1999 as the Eagles' linebackers coach under a rookie head coach named Andy Reid, went 79-67-1 and reached a Super Bowl over eight-plus seasons with the Carolina Panthers, and he is generally regarded as one of the more honorable figures in the league.
“My goal is to, first of all, show everybody that we are trying to rebuild the culture. We’re trying to change the culture,” Rivera said Wednesday. "We want to develop one that can be a positive one for folks who want to be here, want to be part of what we’re doing, and build a sustainable, winning culture the right way. We want to show we’re going to do what it takes. If we have to discipline people, we’re going to discipline people. We’re not going to stand for it.
» READ MORE: Eagles 2020 roster, player by player
“What we’re trying to do is get the media to understand and the people who want to criticize and be critical to understand that those things are in the past. I get it, and I respect that. We take all those allegations seriously. But at the same time, give us a chance to go forward. Give us a chance to get past it.”
People will give Washington that chance this season because of who Rivera is and what he is undergoing just to coach. Last month he had cancer diagnosed, squamous cell carcinoma, and missed practice Tuesday for his first chemotherapy and proton radiation therapy treatments. Under Reid, Rivera learned to appreciate the daily grind of coaching, the focus on the incremental. Practice fast. Do things right. Fix the things you did wrong. The small gains eventually grow.
“Then I come to Carolina,” he said, “and I really relied on the things that Andy had taught us. Any coach coaches coaches, too, and that’s one thing I try to do with my young guys, is coach them, so they understand what the standard is. That’s one of the things Andy always did. He had a standard. He wanted us to live up to it.”
The team that Rivera is coaching now isn’t expected to be very good, so the bigger gains will probably require more time. But there have been other accomplished, dedicated coaches who have been given chances in Washington: Marty Schottenheimer, Gibbs, Mike Shananan. For one reason or another -- Snyder is pretty much always a reason, if not the reason -- they don’t stay very long.
» READ MORE: Predicting the 2020 NFL season
“He’s been very good with myself, with the coaches, with our players, and supporting us,” Rivera said. “He’s all part of what’s going on here with the change. A lot of people aren’t giving him credit for the things he has done, the things that he’s allowed us to do.”
That’s the right thing for any coach working under Daniel Snyder to say, and maybe Rivera, step by step, can get the franchise close to where it once was. Maybe is as far as one can go, though, because the task will be so difficult, these last two decades of mistakes and misconduct so entrenched as the norm. This has been a long and lasting transformation for Washington, from having its best players be known as Hogs to having its leaders be known as pigs, and it’s more than one decent man and coach can reverse.