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The DC Report: Could Ron Rivera be the next Wade Phillips for Rams?

Could Ron Rivera be the next Wade Phillips for the Rams defense?

NFL: Washington Commanders at Los Angeles Rams Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Rams are going through a thorough interview process when it comes to hiring their next defensive coordinator. They’ve shown interest in an up-and-coming candidate, the hot candidate, a familiar candidate, and a veteran candidate. Prior to the interview process, many would have hoped that veteran candidate was along the lines of Wink Martindale or even Bill Belichick. The coach that wasn’t on many people’s radar was former Washington Commanders head coach, Ron Rivera.

Rivera has spent the last 14 years as the head coach of the Carolina Panthers and Washington Commanders. It’s seems odd that after being the leader of the clubhouse for over a decade that Rivera would want to go back to being a coordinator. However, as someone who enjoys the aspect of coaching as much as Rivera does, it may not be all that surprising.

A Rivera hire wouldn’t be completely out of the ordinary for Sean McVay. When McVay came to the Rams back in 2017, he made sure to hire someone with a lot of experience on the defensive side of the ball. That coach at the time was Wade Phillips. Like Rivera, Phillips had head coach experience, but more importantly, he had been a coordinator and had success at each of his previous stops. McVay trusted Phillips so much to run the defense that when the offense wasn’t on the field, you could find the Rams head coach on the bench. As someone who had been there before, Phillips balanced out McVay’s lack of experience.

However, things have changed. McVay is now a more experienced coach. In fact, he’s no longer the youngest head coach in the NFL. Since 2020, the Rams head coach has had a hand in the defense. He knows what he wants on that side of the ball. That’s a big reason why the Rams didn’t renew Phillips’ contract following the 2019 season. Phillips had his scheme and McVay wanted a flexible defensive approach tailored to specific opponents. You’ll rarely find McVay not on the sideline as he’s taken on the role of head coach rather than coordinator.

Bringing in a coach like Rivera feels like taking a step back. Rivera is a coach that’s going to have his scheme and call his defense the way that he’s always called his defense. That’s not to say that Rivera isn’t a good coach or defensive mind. With that said, Rivera isn’t going to bring anything new or innovative to the table as other candidates would. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As they say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It would just be a much different approach than McVay has taken over the last four years. Even when the Rams brought in Raheem Morris, he continued to move forward the scheme implemented by Brandon Staley the year before. It’s hard to see Rivera doing that as well.

Rivera’s defenses don’t often blitz. The Commanders had a 21.8 percent blitz rate last season which ranked 27th in the NFL last season. For comparison, the Rams blitzed 28.8 percent of the time in 2023. From a coverage standpoint, Rivera has always relied on zone looks, mostly Cover 3 and quarters. David Howman over at Blogging the Boys explained Rivera’s scheme is Washington. Said Howman,

“This scheme relies, by design, on talented players that play fundamentally sound football. Rivera’s best defenses in Carolina featured studs like Luke Kuechly, Kawann Short, James Bradberry and others. In Washington, much of his success stemmed from a dominant defensive line ...That’s part of the problem: not enough talent. Without a dominant pass rush, young corners like Benjamin St-Juste and rookie Emmanuel Forbes have been picked apart by opposing quarterbacks, while the predictability of the scheme makes it easy to figure out ways to beat the defense.”

The Rams are currently a defense that lacks talent. While Rivera may have been a good fit for Los Angeles a few years ago, he may not be a fit for the current version and what they need.

In Washington, the Commanders were a base 4-3 team while running nickel out of a 4-2-5. The same can be said about Rivera’s time in Carolina. That would be a pretty big shift for the Rams defense.

Even though the Commanders were coordinated by Jack Del Rio, the defense was still Rivera’s defense. Rivera took over play-calling before Week 13 against the Miami Dolphins after firing Del Rio. From Weeks 1-12, the Commanders ranked allowed 0.076 EPA per play and ranked 32nd in defense EPA. After Rivera took over, Washington ranked 29th in defense EPA, but gave up 0.123 EPA per play which was worse than under Del Rio.

In Washington, the Commanders had the third best defense in EPA in 2020, but ranked 29th, 5th, and 32nd over the next three years. Rivera’s defenses had as many seasons in the bottom-5 as they did in the top-5. In each of Rivera’s four years, they took a defensive player in the first two rounds in the draft. Only Chase Young who was drafted second overall has had some success in the NFL. However, even Young hasn’t necessarily lived up to the second overall pick draft status and was traded away in the middle of last season.

It is worth noting that Sean McDermott is a disciple of Rivera and has had success in Buffalo with the Bills. Steve Wilks was also a defensive coordinator under Rivera and has been successful has well. Eric Washington was just hired as the defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears and held the same position with the Panthers in Rivera’s final season. Rivera does have his stamp across the league.

There’s no questioning Rivera’s ability to lead a unit and a locker room. However, there are some questions in his ability to adapt his scheme and develop young players. Hiring Rivera would be making him the head coach of the defense, much like McVay did with Phillips back in 2017 and 2018. Is that the type of coordinator that McVay wants? It made sense when McVay was 30 and taking his first head coaching job. Now with seven years under his belt, it would be an odd choice.

The Rams coach did give more offensive duties to Mike LaFleur last season, although McVay kept play-calling duties. If McVay is looking to take a more ‘hands off’ approach, Rivera is a veteran option that would be able to handle that. While Rivera may not be the popular option or the preferred option to take over as the Rams defensive coordinator, he may be the option that McVay needs if he’s looking to take more of a step-back and find his next Wade Phillips.