Opinion: During uncertain times, NFL teams will be set apart by leadership, preparation

There’s an approach that Ron Rivera resorts to when faced with uncertainty and helplessness.

The football coach goes back to the basics and strives for perfection in that area. 

Throughout a nine-year NFL playing career, and 23 seasons in the coaching ranks, Rivera has learned that a strong foundation best equips individuals and teams to overcome extenuating circumstances. 

No experience further confirmed this philosophy than Rivera’s first season as a head coach in 2011. The NFL was in a lockout. It cost Rivera and the Carolina Panthers nine weeks of crucial foundation-laying offseason practices. He didn’t meet his players until the first day of training camp in late July. The coaches had to cram to prepare the Panthers and rookie quarterback Cam Newton for the regular season. 

“The biggest thing I learned was ‘Be ready,'” Rivera recalled. “We were ready in every phase. We kept saying, ‘If we come back here, this is how much time we’ll have left to go.’ I kept adjusting the schedule weekly as we’d get into it.”

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Ron Rivera has taken over the Redskins during challenging times. (Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)

Nine years later, Rivera finds himself in a familiar situation. Monday would have marked the start of his first offseason program as Washington Redskins head coach. Instead, all NFL facilities remain closed because of the coronavirus. 

Rivera again has no idea when he’ll get to begin working with his players. But he and his Washington assistants are taking a similar approach to Rivera’s 2011 offseason.

The coronavirus restrictions will continue to create new challenges for every NFL organization. Offseason programs will be carried out virtually with players studying film on video conferences and working out on their own rather than in-person classroom sessions and group practices. Next week’s college draft also will play out on computer screens rather than in team war rooms and a central draft location. Training camps could be delayed and preseasons shortened.

Fears from coaches, personnel executives and agents of botched drafts because of the restrictions this offseason are real. These include prohibiting pre-draft visits and follow-up medical evaluations, and now will prevent front office and coaching staffs from even convening at team headquarters to deliberate and carry out their selections and trades.

But those sentiments aren’t universally held. 

Yes, this is uncharted territory. But the teams with the strongest leadership and most meticulous operational strategies will give themselves the best chance to overcome obstacles, as always. Teams rife with dysfunction, poor internal communication and decision-making will struggle just as they always do.

“This is one of those things that’s really going to test you, and test to find out how good your basics are,” Rivera said. “How good you are in your college scouting department, how good you are as evaluators as coaches and figuring out how this young man is going to fit into your system, just how good you were when you interviewed him. What kind of a feel did you get? This is going to test us, and it’s kind of interesting that we’re going back to the basics of fundamentals of scouting and coaching.”

Rivera feels good about his team’s position at this stage of this unconventional offseason. 

He sees the benefits of his swift hiring. Washington hired him on Dec. 31, and he had his coaching staff fully assembled shortly after. This afforded Rivera and his assistants more time than most teams with turnover to devise their core philosophies, strategies for roster building and on-field preparation. 

Teams await instructions from the NFL and NFL Players Association on the parameters of the impending virtual offseason. But once they do receive the green light, Rivera says they will be ready. 

“We’ve been able to put everything in place,” Rivera said. “Our (digital) play books are all done. … The biggest thing: get (everything) in place now so when we start the virtual coaching, we can start with installation, and again, the things we stress to the guys is, ‘Let's be as basic and fundamentally sound as possible, and then when we finally get to get with our players, we can grow from there.’”

Tuesday afternoon, when Rivera spoke to a group of reporters from his home via video conference, an IT worker was putting the finishing touches on the area in his basement that would serve as the coach’s workstation for the draft. Rivera, his coaches and scouts planned to begin their virtual pre-draft meetings, reviewing the talent evaluators’ reports on each player to construct their draft board.

Rivera said on draft weekend, he and vice president of player personnel Kyle Smith would each have one computer set up to video conference with the NFL to relay picks, and another for video communications between Washington’s staff. Another monitor would be dedicated to their digital draft board. 

They planned to stage a mock draft to ensure that this new process unfolds smoothly on the actual three days of the draft, Rivera said. The NFL also planned to do a dry run with its teams. 

To avoid any unexpected technical difficulties, by Rivera’s mandate, the Redskins don’t plan to pursue any trades once on the clock. If they are able to solicit a deal before their actual allotted time for selections, they will, and if those negotiations continued into their slot, then so be it, Rivera said. But what he doesn’t want is for trade talks to begin after the clock starts, and then an internet or phone connection drops, leaving the Redskins scrambling. 

Once the draft has ended, the Redskins will encounter unknowns of a different kind.

He said, “We’ve broached the subject of what happens if all we have is two weeks (to prepare for a regular-season opener)?”

That’s a big reason why Washington acquired former Panthers’ backup quarterback Kyle Allen via trade last month.

Rivera plans to start second-year pro Dwayne Haskins at quarterback. In the absence of an offseason practice program, the coaches aim to give Haskins twice as many training camp reps as he normally would receive — just as they did when prepping Cam Newton for his rookie season once the lockout ended.

But Rivera wants to be prepared in case restrictions allow for only a week or two of practicing. If Haskins needs more time, Allen, who already knows the system, could get the nod.

“We’ll see how that goes, but that’d be the thought process behind it for us,” the coach said. “If that were the case, hopefully we’ve done the base fundamentals, we’ve installed our offense, defense, special teams, but we’d hopefully we’d have installed the base and from that point, just be very good at doing the basics very well.

“Do them very well and better than anyone else and you give yourself a very good chance to compete.”

In this offseason like no other, success across the league will be determined by preparation.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.

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