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Ron Rivera would be an intriguing choice for the Cowboys new defensive coordinator

Rivera may not be a popular choice, but we're making the case anyway.

NFL: Washington Commanders at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

With Dan Quinn taking the head coach job in Washington, the Dallas Cowboys are now in search of a new defensive coordinator. One candidate is the former Washington head coach, Ron Rivera, who the Cowboys plan to interview for the job. It would be quite the switcheroo for the never-ending fluctuation from head coaching to coordinator shuffle that lives continuously throughout the NFL.

Weirdly, these two have a lot in common. Both have had success as a defensive coordinator reaching the Super Bowl, and both have had success as a head coach, also reaching the Super Bowl. Both have also seen their head coaching careers fade to where they had to step back down to a defensive coordinator job. Quinn has been able to recapture success and parlay it into a new chance as a head coach, but what’s in store for Rivera?

Feelings are mixed when it comes to the idea of making Rivera the Cowboys' new defensive coordinator. Some love the experience, others want a fresh young mind. It’s always hard to get excited about a retread whose most recent job history leaves something to be desired. But when we look back on Rivera’s journey as a coach, there are quite a few examples of success almost everywhere he’s been. Today, we’re going to run through that journey and get a good idea of what Rivera has done over the last 40 years.

DA BEARS

Rivera played nine seasons in the NFL as a linebacker for the Chicago Bears. He was a part of Mike Ditka’s dominant Super Bowl championship team in 1985. If you’re like me, you might have a hard time remembering anything he did on the field, but we were able to find this one little playoff nugget that might jog your memory.

So, it shouldn’t be that surprising that he started his NFL coaching career with his old team as he was the defensive quality control coach for the Bears back in 1997. He worked under then-head coach Dave Wannstedt who Cowboys fans might remember as the mastermind of their Super Bowl-winning defense back in the early ‘90s. The Bears finished 4-12 in each of Rivera’s two seasons with the Bears which resulted in the end of the Wannstedt era in Chicago as his first post-Dallas coaching stint had come to an end.

A STAR-STUDDED COACHING STAFF

When Andy Reid first became a head coach in this league, he took over a three-win Eagles team in 1999 and assembled an excellent defensive staff. Starting with defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, the Eagles also had several other strong defensive coaches including John Harbaugh, Leslie Fraizer, Steve Spagnola, and Ron Rivera as their linebacker coach. Reid’s first year only produced a 5-11 season, but they quickly turned things around thanks to their defense. Here is how the Eagles finished during Rivera’s five years with the team and their points allowed rankings.

RIVERA’S STINT WITH THE EAGLES

YEAR RECORD PLAYOFFS POINTS ALLOWED RANK
YEAR RECORD PLAYOFFS POINTS ALLOWED RANK
1999 5-11 No Playoffs 22nd
2000 11-5 Lost Divisional Round 4th
2001 11-5 Lost Conference Championship 2nd
2002 12-4 Lost Conference Championship 2nd
2003 12-4 Lost Conference Championship 7th

BACK TO THE WINDY CITY

Rivera returned to Chicago where he was promoted to defensive coordinator after joining another new head coach, Lovie Smith. Similar to Philly, the first year was rocky as the Bears finished 5-11, but they then made the playoffs in each of the next two seasons including reaching the Super Bowl in 2006. The Bears' defense was fantastic in those two seasons as they were top five in both points allowed and yards given up during that time. Rivera’s Bears also led the league in takeaways during their Super Bowl season.

Oddly, the Bears and Rivera divorced the following season when they couldn’t agree on a new deal. Rivera was out in Chicago and the Bears' defense went back to being bad. They didn’t see the playoffs again until Rod Marinelli showed up in 2010 and fixed the defense.

THE SAN DIEGO DEMOTION

After interviewing for the open Cowboys head coach job in 2007 (which went to Wade Phillips), Rivera ultimately came up empty and took the linebackers coach job in San Diego where he again joined the staff of another new head coach hire. This time it was Norv Turner who was once the offensive mastermind behind the Cowboys Super Bowl-winning teams in the ‘90s. In Rivera’s first year with the Chargers, the defense finished top five in points allowed and led the league in takeaways and defensive passer rating. It was the first time in team history that the Chargers led the league in those categories. San Diego made it to the AFC Championship game where they lost to the then 18-0 New England Patriots.

Despite their immediate success, the Chargers defense struggled the following year and it led to the firing of defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell. Rivera took over as the team’s new DC where he stayed through the 2010 season. The Chargers' defense was all right as they finished in the top half in points allowed, but the strength of their team was Turner’s offense.

FINALLY A HEAD COACH GIG

Rivera became the new Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2011 taking over a two-win team the previous season under John Fox. The first couple of years were rough, but the Panthers were back in the playoffs in 2013 after finishing 12-4. Rivera would win Coach of the Year that season. The Panthers went to the playoffs in three straight seasons, including a 15-1 season in 2015 where the Panthers made it to the Super Bowl. Rivera again won Coach of the Year in 2015. Despite four playoff appearances across five seasons, the Panthers eventually started struggling leading to a midseason firing of Rivera in 2019.

UNEMPLOYED, NOT FOR LONG

When the Cowboys moved on from Jason Garrett in 2020, Rivera was one of the hot names being thrown around as a potential replacement. But before the Cowboys settled in on Mike McCarthy, Washington had hired Rivera to be their new head coach. After finishing 3-13 the previous year under Jay Gruden, Washington improved during Rivera’s first year as coach. They finished top four in both points and yards allowed his first year culminating in an NFC East title in a year where all the teams in the division had a losing record.

Washington’s defense had a couple of good seasons under Rivera, but struggled on offense, always finishing outside the top 20 in points scored. Rivera had hired Scott Turner (Norm’s son) to run the offense, but they couldn’t muster any success. Making matters worse is defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio had all kinds of problems and this past season they finished dead last in both points allowed and yards gained. After a 4-13 finish this past season, the Ron Rivera era came to an end in Washington.

FROM D.C. TO DC?

Quinn’s defense was notorious for leading the league in generating turnovers, but Rivera’s not too shabby in that department. He’s done that with three different squads and each time, those teams have at least made it to the conference championship game, and twice to the Super Bowl. And speaking of going deep in the playoffs, as a coach in the NFL, Rivera has made it to the conference championship game six times (with three different teams). That’s more than Quinn (3) and even more than Mike McCarthy (5).

It’s hard to know what someone like Rivera would do with this Cowboys team. Quinn’s shoes are going to be hard to fill. Rivera does bring a lot of experience and he specializes in the one area where the Cowboys defense needs the most help. That alone is something.

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