CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As a sportswriter, I don’t root for or against the teams I cover regularly. We are objective observers, not cheerleaders.
But I do root for good people, and always feel freer to do so once they leave Charlotte. Which brings me to the point of this column.
Ron Rivera, please win Sunday, and wipe that smirk off Tom Brady’s face.
Rivera, the eminently likable first-year coach of the Washington Football Team and the head coach of the Carolina Panthers from 2011-19, has directed his team to a very unlikely playoff berth. Washington hosts Brady’s Tampa Bay team on Saturday at 8:15 p.m. (NBC).
The Buccaneers are favored by 8.5 points and probably should be favored by more than that. It’s easy to foresee a scenario in which they beat Washington by 30.
But can the football gods please not let that happen?
Brady has six Super Bowl rings already, the most for a QB in NFL history. He threw 40 TD passes this season at age 43. He always comes out smelling like roses. When Brady and coach Bill Belichick split up in March after an unprecedented 20-year run in New England, it was Brady who made the playoffs and Belichick — with Cam Newton throwing 32 fewer TD passes for the Patriots than Brady did for Tampa in 2020 — who didn’t.
Brady has everything, including a supermodel wife and his own “method” for training and a diet that includes some questionable assertions.
He’s a great player who has led an extremely charmed life. Yet Brady still has such a hard time owning up to his occasional mistake. Witness how difficult it was for him to admit that he didn’t know it was fourth down during a loss to Chicago earlier this season, or how he glossed over accidentally walking into the wrong house in Florida in April while looking for his new offensive coordinator.
And, of course, there’s #Deflategate, a book in itself. And there’s Brady complaining to officials constantly, undoubtedly talking them into more roughing-the-passer calls than any other player in NFL history.
Brady may well be the best QB ever, but I’m tired of him.
Still, he has played superbly and has a fine supporting cast, and it will be a hard slog for Washington to pull off this upset.
Tampa Bay went 11-5 and boasts an embarrassment of riches on offense and a smart, funny coach in Bruce Arians. It wasn’t enough that Brady inherited two Pro Bowl-caliber receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Brady also wanted two of his former New England teammates — wide receiver Antonio Brown and tight end Rob Gronkowski — and so Tampa Bay obligingly went out and got them.
Brady also inherited a top-notch defense that helped the Bucs stomp the Carolina Panthers twice this season.
Washington, on the other hand, went 7-9 and scraped to a title in the woeful NFC East with a lot of help from Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson, who sure seemed like he was trying to lose the season finale against WFT Sunday night (the next day’s headline in The Washington Post read “Tanks for Everything”).
Washington has a good defense, and defensive end Chase Young will probably beat out Jeremy Chinn for Rookie Defensive Player of the Year, but Washington also has all sorts of problems. Many of them were exposed Dec. 27 when Carolina edged Washington, 20-13, and managed its only win since Thanksgiving (and gave up its shot at the No. 3 overall draft pick in 2021 in the process in a massively Pyrrhic victory). So if you’re measuring by the Panthers’ yardstick, Tampa Bay will cream Washington.
Most problematic for Washington this season and Saturday night: Washington has a mess at quarterback like it’s had for most of the season. Washington has played four different QBs at key moments in 2020.
Ideally, Washington would have veteran Alex Smith start and finish Saturday night’s game. Smith made a miraculous comeback to play football again, overcoming a gruesome leg injury that required 17 surgeries and nearly resulted in amputation.
Between Smith’s battle and Rivera coaching this season while fighting cancer and advocating for affordable health care, you’ve got a couple of great guys on the field to root for in Washington. (Yeah, I know the WFT is owned by the loathsome Dan Snyder, but work with me here.)
When I interviewed Rivera by phone in December, he marveled at what Smith has to do just to get on the field.
“I’m telling you,” Rivera said, “the thing that people don’t see on a day-to-day basis basis is what he has to go through to get himself ready to practice, and then play. Stretching. Warming up. Putting all the stuff on — the braces and everything else. Getting out there. Warming up some more. Getting himself going.”
It all sounded very admirable, but it also sounded sort of like how you have to nurse a 1972 El Camino back to life. That’s not ideal when you’re facing a Tampa team that blitzes 39% of the time, fifth-most in the NFL, and tied for fourth in the NFL in total sacks in 2020.
Smith has a troublesome strained calf and is as mobile as a fireplug. So that leaves Taylor Heinicke, who once started a game for the Panthers and took an absolute beating but then was out of the league working on his mathematics degree at Old Dominion until recently.
Rivera has publicly mulled the idea of rotating quarterbacks in this playoff game, which makes everyone think of that old football adage: “If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have any quarterbacks.”
But hey, who knows? When I first became a football fan, in 1971 while living in Texas and watching the Dallas Cowboys, the team rotated Roger Staubach and Craig Morton for the first half of the season — sometimes on every single play. Washington itself did this in the early 1970s, alternating between Billy Kilmer and Sonny Jurgensen.
And Rivera has pulled a win like this off before, winning a playoff game despite a losing record in the regular season. He has compared this season many times to the one the Panthers had in 2014, when they went 7-8-1, won the NFC South and then beat Arizona in the first round of the playoffs.
Rotating QBs certainly won’t work long-term, but sometimes it can work for a while.
Could it work just long enough for Washington to upset Tampa Bay? Only if Brady makes a couple of bad turnovers. Only if Young and company harass him constantly. Only if Washington finds a cheap touchdown or two somewhere.
But we can dream. After the events of this week in D.C., this would be a fine Saturday night diversion.
A first-round loss for Tom Brady? A win for a coach who has fought off cancer? That’s a platform nearly every sports fan can get behind.