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Cancer & Culture Could Rule Washington's Season

Culture Change. A cancer diagnosis. All part of the 2020 offseason of chaos and confusion in Washington.

The news hit as if a ton of bricks one by one was dropped on to your face from 20 feet above. 

Ron Rivera was diagnosed with cancer. Specifically "Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) which is located in the lymph node. 

In an offseason of complete misery, reality hit home. The last chance Dan Snyder ever has of turning around his franchise now is battling something much more important than football. 

He seems to be doing well, all things considered. The team said in a statement that the cancer was in an 'early stage' and 'considered very treatable and curable' but that's the positive and optimistic prognosis. 

It might not be that simple, quite honestly, as Dr. David Chao explained here. 

However, the road to recovery isn't easy no matter what. Rivera missed a full day of practice on Tuesday as the Washington Football Team prepared for their first game. 

Rivera also missed the first portion of Wednesday's practice but returned and coached the rest of the week. He's expected to be on the sidelines Sunday. 

The head coach seems in relatively good spirits but coaching a football team is draining just by itself, never mind running the football operations and dealing with a dysfunctional debacle in many ways. 

And then you have to fight through the ups and many downs of the cancer diagnosis and how completely exhausting and overwhelming that is. 

It makes you wonder how any one human being, even as steely tough as this one is, can maintain their sanity and effectiveness. 

"I’m fine. I’m going to work through this," Rivera said a few days after his public diagnosis. 

He mentioned back then that 'Plan B' would indeed be Jack Del Rio who has almost 200 games of head coaching experience and had been through a similar situation with John Fox in Denver. 

Plan B as Rivera referred to it "will be implemented on the days where I will struggle. Believe me, I’m not being rosy about this, I’m being honest. I’m going to struggle. So those days that I do, I’m going to have to ask the coaches to step up and I’m going to have to ask the players to step up and take ownership." 

Rivera is tough and determined as anyone, but also realistic. He knows cancer kicks everyone's ass in some way. 

"I understand the significance of what I’m going to be going through. I understand how tough it’s going to be, but again, those days that I can be on the field I will be on the field and those days that I can’t, I won’t. And you guys will see it. If I’m there, it’s business as usual. If I’m not, it’s Plan B."

Rivera puts a good spin on the prognosis which he says "is good,  so I’m fairly confident. I can’t wait to get started and get this thing over with and go forward.”

Rivera's battle with that "C" word has largely replaced his first battle with another word that starts with the letter 'C" and that's culture. 

That was his first job here in Washington.  Changing a horrible culture that was rotting worse than week old fish in a garbage can. 

One that laughably Bruce Allen said was great just last October. 

Everyone knew he was full of it then and now you have all the proof you'll ever need. 

Rivera's "Culture Club" includes veteran players that he knows and trusts like Thomas Davis to work the locker room and more importantly, Rivera says being transparent and open about what he expects is of utmost importance. 

Just as he was with Dwayne Haskins. He displayed a fiery side early in camp barking at his players as a group for over five minutes at the end of a practice because they didn't focus for long enough. 

He wants tempo and more of it. He wants focus for more than two hours. 

Fans are going to bark about conservative play calls that don't work or running the ball too much or even clock management at the end of first halves of games. 

All of that pales in comparative importance to being able to play four quarters every week, physically and mentally. 

Rivera has preached the importance of concentrating for longer. He's right and he saw it in person and he sure as heck saw it on tape. 

Who didn't see it? The Washington team under Jay Gruden and Bruce Allen would start off strong in most games and then melt like an ice cream sundae on a hot summer day. 

They weren't conditioned well enough. They didn't work hard enough in practice because teams are trying to keep their guys healthy. 

That never worked for Washington in terms of injuries and the problem was magnified when they would wilt in the second half of games and the season. On a regular basis. 

I know it may seem like I am constantly criticizing Gruden and Allen and I guess I am, despite four seasons in a row where they won a minimum of seven games, which qualifies as a modern day miracle for this franchise. 

But the culture was never right. It was never good no matter what Allen amusingly said with a straight face. If he thought it was good, he's had too many bottles of his breakfast of champions, Coors Light.

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Another 'C' word. 

Part of Rivera's culture club is not stepping out of line. Derrius Guice did and was whacked. Cody Latimer did and  finally was chopped. I've heard if you don't wear your mask at the facility, you get fined almost $15-thousand! 

The ping-pong table was trashed immediately. Why? Because you can't work hard if your mind is on relaxing. 

It was one of the first acts Rivera completed. Maybe symbolic, but that was my point all along. It wasn't necessarily ping-pong, that was just an example. All of you laughed and snickered at me. Many thought I was crazy or just downright bitter at not working for the team anymore. 

Please! I had ZERO interest in working for that horrible outfit any longer. It wasn't fun. It was an awful culture. Period. 

Now, it might be different with real adults in charge. Before there was one. Eric Schaffer. That was it. In a position of power, anyway. 

Culture goes far beyond winning football games or making money. It's much more than being nice to people and treating employees fairly and not like hunks of meat hanging on a hook. 

Culture is everything. It's a way of life. It's an approach of how you handle things. Unselfishly. For the team. 

Ideally that's why coaches and staff wore shirts with the word "TEAM" on the back when players switched to practice jerseys in the final phase of training camp. 

Culture is not just a word. It's not just a motto if it is done right. 

Mike Shanahan's culture was just about having someone highly respected for their football acumen and a no nonsense approach. 

It worked for a while and then the usual nonsense won out. 

Gruden's tenure was a debacle from the start and somehow when Jay got more serious and uptight, the organization improved on the field. 

There were many, many issues behind the scenes. Stories that many do not know. Let's just say the building and the culture was a circus. The people running it were ring leaders and showmen. 

Rivera and his staff seem anything but that. Sure they have personalities. Pete Hoener, the Washington Tight Ends coach can curse like a sailor. 

Jack Del Rio has been very open politically on twitter, which has rubbed many wrong. 

Make no mistake. They are serious about two things. Winning and winning the right way. It doesn't mean you can't have fun. If you have fun responsibly, you'll get treated like an adult and with more rope. 

Cam Newton proved that over and over again. 

"One thing I learned when I was in Carolina is that you do have to adapt," Rivera said this week. "You have to adapt to each person and each personality. I know a lot of coaches like to start out with: ‘We have a theme for the year.’ Whenever you have a theme for the year, that’s going to evolve as you go through it. It’s going to change, and you’ve got to change and evolve to your circumstances. 

"That’s what I had done in the past. Based on I’m going to come out and say, ‘Let’s earn the right, let’s earn the right, let’s earn the right.’ Well, you can do that all the way through training camp and at the start of the season you’ve earned the right to be here. Now, what’s the next step? Well, ‘Hey, let’s go out and now let’s begin our journey. Let’s climb that mountain. Let’s get to the top. Let’s compete.’ 

"Then, once you get almost there, we’re not finished: ‘Let’s continue, let’s continue, don’t look back. It’s a long way you’ve come.’ So, you really have to understand and have a feel, in my opinion, for where your team is and that’s how you adapt to them as well." 

Rivera said he adopted an approach of "I would never ask you to do anything that I would never do" from Mike Ditka. 

He said that his standard is this —"I've played on a championship team. I know what it takes to get to the top."

He's seen his team gradually make less mistakes as camp has gone along and now the regular season is here and there's no looking back. 

They won't win a championship this year in almost any reasonable scenario. 

But that's the real 'C' word that they are shooting for. A division championship, followed by a conference championship and then hopefully one day, a Super Bowl. 

If that happens and somehow Rivera was successful in changing around the culture while battling cancer - he'll have a statue outside of the new stadium right next to Joe Gibbs and Sean Taylor. 

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Chris Russell is the Publisher of this site, a part of He can be heard on 106.7 The FAN in the Washington D.C. area and world-wide on Chris also hosts the "Locked on Washington Football Team" Podcast and can be read via subscription to Warpath Magazine. You can e-mail Chris at or follow him on Twitter at @Russellmania621