From sex scandals and race rows to cancer and injuries, Washington have beaten the odds to reach the NFL playoffs…with a little help from Winston Churchill
- Coach Rivera has overcome unassailable odds to lead them into the playoffs
- He found solace by reading a book about Churchill while battling skin cancer
- The team reluctantly ditched the ‘Redskins’ name over its racist connotations
- Quarterback Alex Smith has returned from a life-threatening injury in 2018
- Washington sealed their playoff place with controversial win over the Eagles
If It could have gone wrong this season for Ron Rivera and his Washington Football Team, it did. Yet, with a little help from Winston Churchill, the 58-year-old overcame unassailable odds and tumult to lead them into the NFL playoffs for the first time in five years.
He was parachuted in a year ago to salvage a young 3-13 team — that is just three wins and 13 losses in the previous season. Things were toxic off the field too.
In July, owner Daniel Snyder rather reluctantly dropped the ‘Redskins’ from the franchise’s name and logo after years of mounting pressure over its racist connotations towards Native Americans. Then 15 female former employees said they were sexually harassed between 2006-2019. It emerged one was paid a $1.6million settlement in 2009.
Coach Ron Rivera has overcome unassailable odds to lead Washington into the playoffs
The following month, during a Covid-shortened pre-season, Rivera was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common type of skin cancer. It had spread into a lymph node in his neck. He underwent two months of aggressive chemotherapy, still attending every game and only missing three practices. He napped between team meetings and sometimes he was carried by a golf cart.
He found solace by reading Erik Larsen’s The Splendid and the Vile, a book about Winston Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister.
‘It was the never-say-die attitude that Churchill had,’ Rivera said. ‘It was one of the speeches he gave in the House of Commons — “They’ll fight anywhere, they’ll fight on the beaches, they’ll fight in the streets, they’ll fight until the last gurgling breath.” That to me is inspiring. I’m learning that anything is possible if you’re willing to commit to it and fight for it.’
Owner Daniel Snyder reluctantly ditched the ‘Redskins’ name over its racist connotations
Washington started the season 1-3. Rivera dropped second-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins, only for backup Kyle Allen to suffer a season-ending leg. Now at 2-7, things appeared to be going badly off the rails.
Enter Alex Smith. The 36-year-old was America’s hottest newcomer in 2005 but almost lost his life after an horrific injury in November 2018.
Smith suffered a compound fracture in his right leg. The wound became infected, sepsis took hold and Smith required 17 surgeries. The leg was almost amputated. It was a miracle that he could walk again, let alone throw a football.
Smith’s cool head and a fearsome defensive line helped them to four straight wins. Aided by playing in the NFC East, the NFL’s weakest divison, suddenly they back in the playoff picture.
Quarterback Alex Smith almost lost his life after an horrific injury in November 2018
But a calf injury sidelined Smith for two games — both defeats. Haskins returned but there was more chaos as he was pictured maskless in a strip club.
Still not 100 per cent, Smith returned for the last match of the regular season, needing victory over divisional rival Philadelphia to make the playoffs.
Washington won 20-14 to make the playoffs with a 7-9 record. But the win raised eyebrows. With nothing to play for, Eagles coach Doug Pederson rested in-form quarterback Jalen Hurts in the fourth quarter. His decision infuriated the New York Giants, who would have won the division with a Washington defeat.
‘I’m not apologising for winning. You apologise for losing,’ Rivera said.
Washington sealed their playoff place with a controversial win over the Eagles
Aside from the 1982 shortened season, only two teams have made the playoffs with a losing record — they both won their first playoff game.
This was not lost on Rivera, whose 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers beat the Arizona Cardinals in 2015. The following season, Carolina toppled the Cardinals again to seal their place in the Super Bowl.
The Cardinals’ coach both times? Bruce Arians, now coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Rivera’s opponent on Saturday.
With doubts about the fitness of Smith and several other key players — Rivera is facing one of the game’s greats, a 43-year-old six-time Super Bowl champion.
‘It’s Tom Brady. Let’s be realistic. He’s having a phenomenal year again. Maybe we’ll get lucky and catch him on a down,’ Rivera said. ‘The old saying goes: “All you need is a chance”. That’s what we have — a chance.’
After all he has overcome this year, who would bet against Rivera upsetting the odds again?
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