While no deal has been completed, Dan Snyder is in the process of selling the Washington Commanders to a group led by Josh Harris. With a reported price tag of $6+ billion on the table, Harris will want to transform the franchise after years of decline under Snyder. Ron Rivera hasn’t been involved in any of the off-field scandals in which Snyder has embroiled the team, but Washington’s on-field performance could put the head coach’s job at risk.
The Commanders Will Likely Want To Make a Change
New NFL ownership groups often like to make changes when they take over organizations. Nathaniel Hackett had already been hired as the Broncos’ head coach when the Walton family purchased the team in 2022, but his dismal performance led to his ouster before he completed his first season in Denver. The Broncos then took a big swing by acquiring Sean Payton’s rights from the Saints in exchange for a 2023 first-round draft pick.
Sweeping adjustments should be expected when Harris officially buys the Commanders, and Rivera won’t be immune. In February, Payton admitted that potential Washington suitors reached out to him about the Commanders’ job.
“Everyone’s waiting to see what happens in Washington,” Payton said. “And there was some interest from some potential ownership groups that are gonna be bidding on, currently had bid on that team, that were getting ahead of the game saying, ‘Hey, if we get awarded this team, would you?’ And so there were a lot of different things at play.”
It’s unclear if it was the Harris group that contacted Payton. Still, it’s further evidence that Washington’s new owners are unlikely to be satisfied with Rivera now that he’s posted three straight seasons with eight or fewer wins.
Ron Rivera Has Been Through This Before
Before the Broncos were sold, the Panthers were the last NFL team to change hands. David Tepper bought the Carolina franchise in 2018, when the club’s head coach was none other than Rivera.
Speaking to the Washington Times in April, Rivera said he could have worked harder to develop a better relationship with Tepper after he bought the team.
“I’ve got to be very specific and very clear cut with what our vision is going forward,” Rivera said. “And it has to mesh.
“That’s one of the things I learned from [the Panthers change] is that not having it mesh, not having an explanation of what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it … slows that process down. When that opportunity comes, when I sit down (with new ownership) and go through the explanation, I’m going to be very concise.”
After Tepper took over in Carolina, Rivera lasted for the entire 2018 season (finishing with a 7-9 record) but was fired with a month remaining in the 2019 campaign. However, Rivera was a Panthers franchise icon who had taken the team to four playoff trips and a Super Bowl. Without that sort of track record in Washington, Rivera is unlikely to receive as long of a leash.
It’s (Probably) Playoffs or Bust for Ron Rivera
If there’s one nearly surefire way for Rivera to keep his job with the Commanders, it’s to make the playoffs. Since 2001, only three NFL head coaches have been fired in the offseason after earning a postseason appearance: Tony Dungy (Buccaneers, 2001), Marty Schottenheimer (Chargers, 2006), and Mike Mularkey (Titans, 2017).
But entering the tournament is far from assured for Washington. Rivera led the Commanders to the playoffs in his first season as head coach, but they snuck in with only seven wins. The NFC is still the weaker conference, but a below-.500 record is unlikely to be enough to grab a postseason slot.
Per DraftKings, the Commanders have the third-worst odds (+300) among NFC teams to make the playoffs in 2023. Only the Cardinals and Buccaneers have a worse chance at the postseason, according to the betting markets.
That’s largely because of the strength of the NFC East. The Commanders aren’t a worse team than Rams and are probably on par with clubs like the Bears, Packers, and Panthers.
But the NFC East sent three teams to the playoffs last season, and the Eagles and Cowboys have two of the three highest win projections in the entire conference. A division crown seems almost entirely out of the question for Washington, leaving a Wild Card berth as their most viable path to the postseason.
Sam Howell Could Be Washington’s Skeleton Key
If the Commanders don’t make the playoffs in 2023, there might still be another way for Rivera to stick in Washington: prove that Sam Howell can be the team’s long-term starting quarterback.
Howell isn’t a lock to be the Commanders’ QB1 next season. Washington signed veteran Jacoby Brissett — who just posted the best campaign of his career with the Browns — to a one-year deal worth $8 million. Although the Commanders have backed Howell all offseason, there’s a chance Brissett overtakes him in training camp or the preseason.
But if Howell can lock down the starting job, there are reasons to be excited about his future. Viewed as a potential No. 1 overall pick heading into the 2021 college football season, Howell struggled in his final go-round at North Carolina and fell to the fifth round.
But as PFN’s Oliver Hodgkinson noted in Howell’s scouting report, it’s not as if the ex-Tar Heel suddenly lost all his tantalizing traits. Howell is an intelligent and accurate signal-caller with an above-average arm, and his mobility (828 rushing yards for UNC in 2021) adds an extra dimension to his game.
Working with a talented receiving corps that includes Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson, and Curtis Samuel, Howell could deliver on his promise next season. If that happens, Rivera could sell the Commanders’ new owners on a vision centered around Howell as the team’s franchise quarterback, even if Washington doesn’t make the playoffs in 2023.