Washington players reported to training camp on Tuesday, and a lot of the questions revolved around the continuing reports of low vaccination rates among the team's players. Nicki Jhabvala of the Washington Post reported that Washington had the lowest player vax rate in the NFL, with just 60% having received at least one dose. This contrasts with a report that 10 NFL teams have vaccination rates above 90% and that the league-wide average is 83.6% of players having had at least one shot.
In a contrast to his statements from a month ago when coach Rivera said that the team would be content to let players make their own decisions about getting vaccinated and simply follow whatever protocols might be in place, the head coach was clearly unhappy when he spoke to reporters on Tuesday.
While the coach reiterated the kind of message he sent earlier this offseason, saying on Tuesday that Washington has "a group of young guys that want more information," he added, "The frustrating part is we’re trying to provide it, as quickly and as much as possible. But they still have to make their own decisions.”
But the coach's displeasure was apparent in his words and his tone.
"Each individual has to make the decision for themselves, but hopefully they can understand just how impactful not getting the vaccine is. You'd like to believe that, with all the news that's been out there in terms of people who are being hospitalized and dying from COVID right now, [that players understand] it's those that are unvaccinated."
Of course, having undergone radiation and chemotherapy treatments around this time last year in his successful fight to beat cancer, Ron Rivera is in the group of high-risk individuals. He reiterated this fact while the cameras were rolling and the microphones were on.
"I'm truly frustrated; I'm beyond frustrated. The reason I walked in with the mask on is I'm immune-deficient, so with this new variant, who knows? So, when I'm in a group, and the group is not vaccinated or there's a mixture, I put the mask on, and I do that for health reasons. I have to do that, and I just wish -- I hope -- that our guys could understand that."
The coach's concern went beyond concern for his own health issues during his remarks on Tuesday. He also talked about the competitive disadvantages that the team could face.
"Where it becomes a real disadvantage will come in terms of preparation if you've got a guy that's going to miss out on two weeks of work. When you get into the regular season and you wake up on Saturday morning and they come and tell you that you've got five guys that can't play on Sunday -- and that's your starting group -- that's going to shake your team up.
So, it could be a huge disadvantage. The thing they've got to think about, too, is, based on the rules, you're risking not just your paycheck, but other people's paychecks too if there's no game."
Related story: NFL takes the gloves off in fight to get players vaccinated
It's easy to wonder if Ron Rivera's approach to running a football team may have backfired on him in this instance. During minicamp, it was reported that the head coach had arranged for a specialist to come into the facility to speak to the players and explain the importance of getting a vaccine. Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians was asked if he would be doing something similar.
“I’m the specialist,” Arians said, via Jenna Laine of ESPN.com. “If you wanna go back to normal, get vaccinated,” Arians added. “Eighty-five percent is what we’re shooting for. . . . It’s still a personal choice, but I don’t see a reason not to be vaccinated.”
Arians and other coaches have been more forceful in pushing the need for vaccination on players, it seems. Coach Rivera, who is known for building relationships with players and challenging them to make responsible decisions for themselves, may be experiencing the downside of his mentoring approach: sometimes people don't follow the path that you wish for them.
Still, the Washington head coach seems committed to continuing to do things in his trademark fashion, saying, "I think the big thing, really, is to have individual conversations, which is my intent -- to sit down and talk to these guys individually and get a feel.
Again, I'm not going to tell anybody what do do; I'm going to try and understand them and give them some reasons why I think [getting vaccinated] would be a good thing, and we'lll see how it goes.
But I hope we can get to these guys and get them to understand, really, it's not just for them, but it's for the people around them."
It seems as if the coach and the team are facing a difficult challenge in a year when all the efforts of the NFL are being directed at getting as many players vaccinated as possible. With personal health issues at play, competitive disadvantages likely, and an important season for the franshise hanging in the balance, a lot is riding on the individual decisions of Washington players in the coming days and weeks.
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