southernbeau

Making sense of the non-sensical world of American politics

The Education of Ron Rivera: From the Outhouse to the Riverboat (to the Penthouse?)

The NFL’s silly season — kicked off annually by Black Monday and highlighted by the frenzied game of musical chairs that follows — has just come to a close with each of this year’s seven vacancies having been mercifully filled. The most egregious firing offence in this year’s class was undoubtedly perpetrated by Tampa Bay owner Malcolm Glazer who inexplicably canned Lovie Smith after only two seasons, the second of which saw a 4 game improvement over the first. Sometimes, however, it is those men not shown the door who will eventually make for the biggest headlines. In sports, as in life, patience often proves to be a virtue that pays significant dividends to those owners who are willing to practice it. The best contemporary illustration of this principle is Jerry Richardson — the venerable owner of the Carolina Panthers — who embodied the patience of Job in his dealings with Ron Rivera.

That sublime patience has paid off tenfold for the Carolina owner as he has seen his team win three consecutive NFC South Championships, culminating with this year’s unexpected and exhilarating run at perfection. Inevitably, there are many ingredients that must simultaneously converge to facilitate success to this degree. Many of these ingredients are well documented: the emergence of Cam Newton as an elite quarterback; the marked improvement of the offensive line; the production of the receiving corps despite the loss of Kelvin Benjamin; the consistently stout running game; the reluctant star known as Greg Olsen; the formidable defense led by the ever-steady Luke Kuechly; the superhero-infused confidence of lead corner Josh Norman; and the veteran leadership of the understated Thomas Davis. These disparate parts, though, are bound together by a man who is not so well known — Ron Rivera, their unassuming leader, without whom the Panthers would be nowhere near the lofty heights to which they have now ascended.

Ron Rivera is the head coach of the Carolina Panthers. Outside of the Carolinas, this simple fact might not be universally known by otherwise well-informed sports fans. Rivera is personable, but quiet. He does not seek attention like Jim Harbaugh or Chip Kelly; to the contrary, he avoids it. He does not possess a big personality like Pete Carroll or Bruce Arians; by contrast, his is rather diminutive. He does not have the jaw of Cowher, the stare of Tomlin, the uncontrollable emotion of Vermeil or the unmistakable hands-on-hips exasperation of Coughlin. Heck, his offensive coordinator, Mike Shula, probably enjoys higher name recognition than does he simply by virtue of surname. Celebrity coach, he is not.

However, there are many things that Ron Rivera is. He is steady — exhibiting the same composed demeanor whether in the eye of the storm or the calm that follows. He can be tough as nails in the face of adversity, but just as gentle when an extended hand is needed. He is strong as a leader of men, but wisely delegates leadership responsibilities to key voices in the locker room. He is principled beyond reproach — never wavering as the losses piled up early in his tenure. And pile up they most certainly did. Of primary importance to this story, though, he is flexible — willing to listen to his players and coaches, learn from past mistakes, and, most notably, adapt his philosophy accordingly, the latter of which would spawn the birth of his alter-ego, Riverboat Ron, who quite possibly saved him from his own Black Monday fame (or infamy).

From the Outhouse to the Riverboat

Just six games into Rivera’s second season as head coach, Jerry Richardson made an abrupt, and somewhat surprising, decision to fire longtime general manager Marty Hurney. While in-season firings are not Richardson’s style, the Panthers were off to an anemic 1–5 start to the season, and the Big Cat, as Richardson is affectionately known, wanted answers. Rivera was called into Big Cat’s office, and was advised in no uncertain terms that the Panthers needed to be “trending up” for the balance of the season, or presumably further changes would be afoot. That now famous phrase was taken fully to heart by Rivera as the Panthers went 6–4 the rest of the way, including 4 straight wins to round out the 2012 campaign. Trending up, things were.

At the time, the players on that squad made clear that Rivera never panicked, never wavered, never flinched, and certainly never buckled under the intense pressure applied by the brutal start and the subsequent scolding from the owner. He remained steadfast and unyieldingly consistent, as is his way. With his job on the line, Rivera treated no one in the building any differently, from the janitor to quarterback Cam Newton. In fact, the only discernable difference was that Rivera threw himself even more deeply into preparation, film study and meetings with his coaches in an effort to correct the team’s various issues.

So often when a team faces extreme headwinds such as these they become disengaged, fray at the seams and ultimately spin out of control — much like the Chip Kelly-led Philadelphia Eagles did this year. It takes a strong, competent, but above all, respected leader to keep a team unified and focused during such trying times. Ron Rivera did just that and more in helping his team finish the 2012 season on an upward trend. Sadly, for Rivera and the Panthers, the newfound prosperity proved fleeting, and that upward ascent did not carry over into the new season. Consequently, Rivera’s job would be in jeopardy anew.

It was September 15, 2013, a typically gray autumn day in Orchard Park, NY, when Ron Rivera’s tenuous reign as head coach of the Carolina Panthers hit rock bottom with a thud so resounding it was not at all certain that he would survive to coach the next game. Indeed, various media reports surfaced intimating that the front office had already begun to perform background checks on potential replacements. See, the Panthers had just suffered yet another stinging defeat in the closing minutes of a game to move Rivera’s record to a dismal 2–14 in games decided by less than a touchdown. Now 0–2 on a new season that was quickly slipping through their fingers, it seemed as though management was summarily drawing the conclusion that it might be time to cut their losses and move on.

Up until this point, Rivera’s tenure in Carolina had been characterized by exceptionally conservative in-game decision making, which generated a well-deserved perception that the coach played “not-to-lose” in an effort to protect leads instead of looking to stretch them. The Buffalo game provided a perfect illustration of this point. Leading 20–17 and facing a 4th and 1 situation with under two minutes to play, Rivera elected to kick the field goal to increase his lead to 6 points. In this particular instance, conventional wisdom might even have been on Rivera’s side. That point notwithstanding, every Panthers fan knew exactly how this story would end. As if on cue, E.J. Manuel engineered a game-winning touchdown drive with 1:38 to play, once again leaving Carolina on the short end of a close game. Had the Panthers successfully converted the 4th down (gained 1 measly yard), Rivera would have effectively ended the game as Buffalo was out of timeouts and could not stop the clock. Risky, yes, but the reward would have been great. Alas, it was not to be.

With the hot seat now aflame, Rivera suddenly and strikingly altered his coaching philosophy in risk versus reward situations. In the very next game, Rivera would eschew a field goal attempt on a 4th and goal from the 2 yard line in favor of a Mike Tolbert run. Tolbert would find the end zone, and the Panthers would never look back in a 38–0 thrashing of the New York Football Giants. Over the next several weeks, Rivera would forgo 4th down field goal attempts a total of 5 times, converting 4, all of which culminated in touchdowns, and Panthers victories. The lone failure was a dropped pass by perpetually butterfingered Brandon LaFell on a perfectly placed ball from Cam Newton which would have surely resulted in yet another touchdown. And just like that, Riverboat Ron was born. Though Rivera did not readily embrace this moniker (at least initially), he stayed true to the philosophy resulting in Carolina’s first playoff birth since 2008, and his winning the 2013 AP NFL Coach of the Year award.

Carolina fans had all sorts of fun at the expense of their suddenly gamble-happy head coach. However, I would contend that “Riverboat Ron” goes far beyond being a mere persona or strategy. Fundamentally, it is the head coach sending a very simple, yet vital, message to his team — saying, in effect, I have confidence in you. Cam, I trust that you will do what it takes to get that yard or two on 4th down to move the chains. Admittedly, that must be a decision which is made somewhat easier by the fact that your quarterback is 6’5’’ and 250 pounds. Nevertheless, this metamorphosis in attitude seemed to instill a confidence, trust and camaraderie in the players that literally transformed this football team, the relationship between head coach and quarterback in particular. Furthermore, it would lay the much needed foundation for overcoming several difficult situations which would arise during the 2014 season, on and off the field.

Consummate Leadership Through Adversity

On the field, the 2014 season would start as a model of inconsistency. One game the offense would be the catalyst for defeat; the next game the defense would provide the letdown. Interestingly, special teams was the one consistent unit; unfortunately, they were consistently bad. They might have been “special,” but not in the complimentary sense. These Panthers fumbled, bumbled, were humbled, and generally could not get out of their own way. They sported a seven game winless streak and a gaunt record of 3–8–1 (spoiler: the tie would come in handy later) before finally winning again at New Orleans in Week 14. While things on the field up to this point were ugly enough, things were about to take a dark turn off the field as well — indeed, a dark turn off the road.

Looking to build on the previous week’s win, Cam Newton was driving the same familiar route he had driven countless times before to the team’s complex to prepare for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Suddenly, the Bucs, and the game, became infinitely less important as Newton lay on the cold Charlotte pavement looking up at his crumpled truck, which had just swerved to miss another car and landed on its side with its roof totally flattened. Eerily, Newton later said of himself, “Somebody is supposed to be dead.” Of course, Newton was far from dead, but he was shaken, as were his rattled teammates. Obviously, these were far from ideal conditions from which to make a run at the playoffs. On this year, though, Ron Rivera had little use for ideal conditions.

With the Panthers playoff hopes hanging by a thread, along with the team’s psyche following Cam’s accident, Coach Rivera exemplified leadership at its finest. In addition to being a head coach who needed to quickly figure out how to get the Panthers’ train back on the tracks, Rivera was also very much a father figure to what was undoubtedly a fragile group of men. Navigating this fine line with remarkable deftness, Rivera guided the Panthers to 4 straight wins and their second consecutive NFC South Championship. Both incredibly and inexplicably, the Panthers were playoff bound once again — the first time in their nearly 20 year history they would make back-to-back playoff appearances.

Not satisfied with simply making the playoffs, the Panthers clipped the wings of the Arizona Cardinals in the first round with an impressive, if incomplete, 27–16 victory in Charlotte. Now the winners of 5 straight, these Panthers were on fire. However, in the wee hours of the morning of Monday, January 5th, Ron Rivera was about to experience a fire of a different sort.

With preparations for the Seattle Seahawks in an NFC Divisional playoff game well underway, Ron Rivera and his wife, Stephanie, were suddenly awakened by their house and smoke alarms. The Riveras were able to get themselves — as well as Ron’s two brothers and their wives — out of the house unscathed. The house, however, was not so lucky as $500,000 worth of damage was incurred. In the middle of playoff preparations for Seattle, the Panthers’ nemesis no less, the Riveras packed their belongings and went to live with friends. Speaking about this latest obstacle in what was a season of them, Rivera said, “This could’ve been worse, like Cam’s situation could’ve been worse. But it wasn’t, so we’re very fortunate. [This year] has been different. You can’t make this stuff up. But you learn how to deal with these things and cope with these things. If you can keep your focus, you have a chance.”

Despite the personal turmoil, Ron Rivera led the Panthers to a valiant effort against the defending Super Bowl champions in the Emerald City. The Panthers stayed close until late, undone by 3 turnovers all of which resulted in Seattle points, before falling 31 -17. Moral victories do not have a home in the NFL, but if they did, they would reside at Ron Rivera’s home, if he had one, following the 2014 season. Under the circumstances, the Carolina Panthers had no business winning a division title, making the playoffs and winning their first round playoff game. But Ron Rivera made it his business to do just that. Consummate leadership through undue adversity.

The Pursuit of Perfection

As Ron Rivera and his staff prepared for the upcoming 2015 season, and the players gathered in sultry Spartanburg, South Carolina for training camp, Rivera received the phone call he had long been dreading. His oldest brother, Mickey, had passed away after an inspiring two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Just months before, an emotional Ron Rivera presented Mickey with the game ball after the Panthers defeated the Arizona Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs. Following Mickey’s death, Ron tweeted that Mickey was his “1st & best teammate” with the hashtag #Riverabrothers4ever. In the face of yet another personal defeat, Rivera continued to exemplify a dignity and humanity that the Panthers, and our world, are lucky to have.

After returning to training camp following his brother’s funeral in Nevada, Rivera would soon be met by yet more devastating news. The Panthers were practicing with the Miami Dolphins in anticipation of their upcoming pre-season game when Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL, effectively ending his season before it began. The freakish injury occurred during one-on-one drills in which Kelvin ran about 10 yards against Miami safety Reshad Jones before planting in an attempt to cut right. Sadly, there would be no cut. And things certainly were far from right. Without any contact between the two players, Benjamin would immediately crumple to the ground, let out a shriek and cradle his left knee in agony. A knee that was no longer stable. Perhaps an apt metaphor for the mental state of the entire team, and its snake-bitten fan base.

With his huge frame, massive catch radius and soft hands, Benjamin is quarterback Cam Newton’s favorite target. Who can blame him? At 6’5,” 245 pounds and possessing an astonishing 83 inch wing span, Benjamin, who was entering his sophomore campaign, is already on the verge of becoming an elite wide receiver in the league. Frankly, one would have been hard pressed to overstate his loss. Despite this, Ron Rivera never allowed his team to feel sorry for itself. He impressed upon his team that injuries are a part of the game which every team encounters, and are simply obstacles which can and must be overcome.

But Rivera took things one step further; yes, the Benjamin injury created an obstacle, but it also presented an opportunity. Rivera calmly explained that losing a key component of the football team to a season-ending injury does not provide the death knell for the entire season. Indeed, to the contrary, what seems at the time to be a devastating blow can bring about unintended, yet positive, consequences. Often, a team will use a devastating event to “rally around” one another, and, on occasion, such an event can propel a team to higher heights than might have originally been possible. In sports, like life (funny how often they mirror one another), the prospects of playing for something bigger than oneself can provide the foundation by which something special can be built. What’s more, and perhaps most surprising, Rivera expressed supreme confidence in the remaining members of the receiving corps. A position group which, without Benjamin, was much maligned as being pedestrian at best, and tragically inadequate at worst.

Despite the Benjamin injury, the Panthers won their opening week game convincingly at Jacksonville. Then, they won again and again and again to finish the first quarter of the season at 4–0. Given the perceived weakness of their schedule, an undefeated Carolina team remained the butt of many a joke. It was not a laughing matter to Ron Rivera, however. He took the snickering media head on, proclaiming that his team deserved to be treated better. He also brilliantly utilized the perceived slights as bulletin board material for an upcoming stretch which would be critical to the Panthers post-season hopes.

The next four games featured Seattle, Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Green Bay, all of whom were billed as upper echelon teams as the season began. The Panthers won in the Pacific Northwest in dramatic comeback fashion, beat the Eagles and held serve at home against the Colts and Packers on Monday night and Sunday night games respectively.

As the wins accumulated and the national spotlight brightened its focus on Carolina, Rivera straddled a fine line between keeping his team focused while allowing his players to enjoy their unprecedented successes. Even as Cam Newton dabbed and Josh Norman jabbed, Rivera afforded his players the freedom to express themselves; but more than that, he exhorted his players to stay true to who they are, never change for anyone and to, above all, enjoy the moment.

Once upon a time, this likely would not have been Rivera’s inclination, and perhaps would even have been anathema to him. During his playing days with the Chicago Bears, Rivera was a tough linebacker who played for hard-nosed, no nonsense Mike Ditka, and generally shunned the spotlight. But, by going to bat for his guys and defending them against the media, the haters, the naysayers, the Tennessee moms and the Seattle dads, Rivera was solidifying his stature among the players as the respected head coach for whom they would run through a brick wall into battle. The perfection with which he navigated this delicate balance is a story unto itself, and is a chief component of this year’s Panthers’ success.

Buoyed by a reservoir of confidence as deep as the Grand Canyon, the Panthers continued to pick up victories until they found themselves at 14–0. At this point, it was only natural to introduce the “P” word into the conversation. The media were writing stories hand over fist about the possibility of perfection, members of the 1972 Dolphins were being hounded mercilessly for comments, and even the Panthers players themselves had begun to address the elephant in the locker room.

Once again, Ron Rivera handled the situation, dare I say, perfectly. He did not mince words or hide behind nuance in making clear that he wanted to make history, completing a perfect season. More importantly, he did not want his players to shrink from the challenge. Of course, in the end, the Panthers did not go undefeated after being tripped up in Week 16 by Atlanta. Susceptible to a post-Dirty Bird letdown, Rivera and his staff did a remarkable job re-focusing his troops and getting them ready for the season finale against Tampa Bay, to the tune of a 38–10 rout of the Buccaneers. As Cam Newton circled Bank of America Stadium high-fiving all the fans who had stuck around, it was clearly evident that these Panthers had shaken off the sting of the Atlanta defeat, were at peace with their regular season achievements and were poised for the bigger fish that swam ahead.

Super Bowl or Bust?

Last week, as the Panthers embarked on their playoff journey, they were met with considerable pressure relative to the other teams. Although they boasted the best regular season record, many national pundits have held a healthy distrust of the Panthers’ greatness. As the weeks rolled on, and fewer and fewer teams were left undefeated, Carolina was often, rather comically, labeled, “the worst undefeated team left.” It was often said that Carolina was the benefactor of a weak schedule, even though they beat the Packers, Colts, Texans and Seattle, the last two of which were on the road.

Speaking of Seattle, that latte-infused team miraculously escaped the frozen tundra of Minnesota with a first round win in the playoffs to set up, as if cut from a Hollywood script, a rematch with the Panthers in the NFC Divisional round. Predictably, the Seahawks instantly became the sexy pick among the media and fans alike to take out the overrated Panthers. In what was a wild and wacky game that Hollywood might have titled “The Tale of Two Halves,” the Panthers stuck their collective fingers in the eyes of their detractors by toughing out a 31–24 victory. However, it was not enough to silence their increasingly desperate, and somewhat sad, critics. The lousy second half, they say, proves once again that the Panthers are not Super Bowl worthy.

All of this adds to the pressure the Panthers must feel to validate their 15–1 regular season record, and the playoff victory over Seattle. Ron Rivera has masterfully used the Rodney Dangerfield “no respect” card to motivate his team all season. Miraculously, he has been able to effectively convince a team that had not yet lost that they weren’t any good in the eyes of most. On a side note, rumor has it that Ron has some real estate in Siberia for sell if you’re looking for a quick getaway. I can only imagine the number he is doing on his team in the lead up to the NFC Championship game this Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. A Cardinals team who, you guessed it, is the new, new sexy pick to end the Panthers glorious season one step short of glory.

Ron Rivera is the product of a proud military family, and he is no doubt imbued with that very distinctive ethos. He is honorable, loyal, resolute, tough, humble and hardworking. But he is also empathetic, flexible and open to change. Put simply, Ron Rivera is a good human being. But in addition to these most admirable of traits, Ron Rivera is a darn good football coach. So is Riverboat Ron. Together, they have a chance to win Super Bowl 50; but, win or lose, this will not be their last rodeo in Carolina. Ron Rivera has built the foundation for a program that will endure, just as Big Cat envisioned.

Advertisements

January 24, 2016 Posted by | Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers, Greg Olsen, Kelvin Benjamin, NFC Championship Game, NFL, Ron Rivera, Seattle Seahawks, Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment