Pan­thers’ Rivera must ‘evolve’ – and he’s al­ready started

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY JOUR­DAN RODRIGUE jro­[email protected] char­lot­teob­

Carolina Pan­thers head coach Ron Rivera re­ally wanted to buy a paint­ing last week in At­lanta.

He met with the artist, Steve Pen­ley, at Pen­ley’s gallery as Su­per Bowl fes­tiv­i­ties swal­lowed the city. Pen­ley’s style fea­tures re-imag­in­ings of the por­traits of fa­mous his­toric fig­ures un­der swaths of vivid rain­bow col­ors in broad brush strokes. The one Rivera wanted in­cor­po­rated the bust from a well-known 1940s photo of Win­ston Churchill, eas­ily as tall as Rivera him­self and about 10 feet long, cov­ered in bright streaks of color.

Rivera loves Churchill. He’s read count­less ar­ti­cles, bi­ogra­phies and nov­els about the for­mer Bri­tish prime min­is­ter. In fact, there aren’t many things “Churchill” Rivera hasn’t come across over the years.

But this par­tic­u­lar paint­ing was dif­fer­ent than any­thing he had seen. And it per­haps res­onated so much with Rivera be­cause it re­sem­bled a bal­ance he is try­ing to find be­tween two con­cepts as he en­ters his ninth NFL sea­son: the fa­mil­iar and the in­no­va­tive.

Rivera has taken time to eval­u­ate each of his coaches this off­sea­son. They went over ev­ery call and ev­ery play on both of­fense and de­fense, try­ing to find out what went so very wrong dur­ing the Pan­thers’ seven-game los­ing streak in 2018.

But Rivera also con­ducted his own self-eval­u­a­tion with the help of his wife, Stephanie, over


Pan­thers coach Ron Rivera

the past month.

And he kept re­turn­ing to one big ques­tion.

How can Rivera stay true to the philoso­phies that got him where he is to­day, and still evolve?


Rivera’s pe­riod of in­tro­spec­tion, which he calls a “self-scout,” was still in progress when he sat down with the Ob­server over break­fast in At­lanta be­fore Su­per Bowl LIII. He’s re-eval­u­at­ing the sea­son, sure, but also who he is as a coach.

“It’s as tor­tur­ous as it gets,” he said, ex­hal­ing sharply.

There are some hard truths in a sea­son that started 6-2, and ended 7-9. Rivera re­mains frus­trated that he saw symp­toms of the wheels fall­ing off in a blowout in Pitts­burgh, but he was too slow to make the cor­rect di­ag­no­sis be­cause nar­row losses the next two weeks, each es­sen­tially de­cided by one or two plays, clouded his vi­sion.

“The big­gest mis­take, the big­gest re­al­iza­tion, I wish had come (ear­lier),” he said. “But we were play­ing well. We were win­ning. It’s not like we were get­ting blown out, other than in Pitts­burgh.

“I missed it. That’s why I missed it. If, after Pitts­burgh, Detroit had been a 17-point blowout, now all of the sud­den the bells and whis­tles are go­ing off.”

Some of the prob­lems were rooted in co­or­di­na­tor and as­sis­tant turnover.

De­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Eric Wash­ing­ton was in his first year, with each of his as­sis­tants also in their first sea­son, and there were clashes of method­ol­ogy.

Wash­ing­ton had coached the Pan­thers’ de­fen­sive line for eight years, and the iden­tity he had es­tab­lished with that group con­trasted with the style of de­fen­sive line coach Brady Hoke. (Hoke and cor­ner­backs coach Jeff Ima­mura were fired after Week 13.)

With some de­fen­sive as­sis­tants and co­or­di­na­tors on dif­fer­ent pages, the dif­fer­ences in fun­da­men­tals be­tween vet­eran de­fen­sive play­ers and rook­ies looked all the more gap­ing at times. And over­all de­fen­sive speed suf­fered.

Rivera saw all of that, but said he in­ter­vened too late.

“There are some things that I have to look at and be hon­est with my­self about,” he said, “and a lot of it starts with me.”

He also said he lost sight of a bit of ad­vice once given to him over 20 years ago by for­mer Cow­boys coach Jimmy John­son.

“Stick to what you know, and do it,” he re­counted. “Some­where along the line last year, I kind of got away from what I be­lieved. You do the same thing for eight years, and you get in that com­fort zone, ‘This is what we do and this is how we do it.”

Rivera said he and Stephanie had a blunt con­ver­sa­tion about how to cor­rect that.

“I have to evolve, I have to change,” Rivera said. “This team has to evolve, this team has to change. ... I’ve got to step up. I’ve got to set the stan­dard.”


Rivera’s method­ol­ogy for mov­ing his team for­ward is start­ing to un­fold.

In some ways, he’s lean­ing on his foun­da­tion — John­son’s ad­vice of stick­ing to what he knows. For one, he will call the de­fen­sive plays in 2019.

He took over that role in Week 13 of the 2018 sea­son, a throw­back of sorts from his time as a de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor in Chicago and San Diego.

But Rivera’s mo­ti­va­tion isn’t just about his com­fort zone. Call­ing plays ac­tu­ally pushes him to seek an­swers for weekly prob­lems pre­sented by other teams, and to in­no­vate.

So far, that in­no­va­tion is tak­ing the form of a de­fense that will will likely be much more mul­ti­ple than in past years. Rivera wants to marry as many 3-4 and 4-3 de­fen­sive con­cepts as pos­si­ble, depend­ing on the matchup.

This re­flects Rivera’s body of work in Chicago, where he ran a 4-3, and in San Diego, where he ran a 3-4.

But it also puts the Pan­thers in bet­ter po­si­tion to counter a wide va­ri­ety of of­fen­sive looks and throw more wrin­kles in op­po­nents’ paths.

“If you play a 30-front (and) a 40-front, guess what ev­ery­body has to pre­pare for?” he said. “Both. Not just the same thing over and over and over.”

The move also means the Pan­thers have al­ready had to make tough ros­ter de­ci­sions — such as not ex­tend­ing vet­eran line­backer Thomas Davis. More are on the way.

Carolina’s young play­ers will have to develop, com­bined with an in­fu­sion of fresh legs and speed brought in via free agency and the draft.

A more mul­ti­ple de­fense also adds to the learn­ing curve for Pan­thers as­sis­tants. To help them grow, Rivera has reached back­ward again, in or­der to move for­ward.

He hired long­time NFL de­fen­sive as­sis­tant Perry Fewell to coach the se­condary. Fewell will also be a de­fen­sive re­source for all on staff — some­thing Fewell has done for Rivera be­fore.

Back in 2004, Rivera was the de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor in Chicago and strug­gling to pick up how the lineback­ers and se­condary were sup­posed to gel in cer­tain cov­er­ages. So he asked Fewell, who was the Bears’ se­condary coach at the time, for help.

“And he gave me the rest of my ed­u­ca­tion as far as the de­fense was con­cerned,” Rivera said.

Rivera will also keep close in 2019 a les­son he learned in the early days of his head coach­ing career from a meet­ing with Hall of Fame coach John Mad­den. At the time, Rivera had lost 19 games in his first two sea­sons as Carolina’s head coach, and be­gan the 2013 sea­son 0-3.

“I was fly­ing by the seat of my pants,” Rivera said, adding that in his in­ex­pe­ri­ence, he leaned too much on what he had seen oth­ers do rather than his own in­stincts.

Mad­den asked Rivera to note all of the failed plays from those losses. Then he asked why Rivera made the calls he did.

“I went by the book,” Rivera told Mad­den.

“What book? There is no book,” Mad­den replied.

From there, Rivera be­gan push­ing him­self out of his com­fort zone. He trusted his in­stincts more of­ten, and be­came less con­ser­va­tive. Carolina went to a Su­per Bowl two sea­sons later.

Now, his in­stincts are telling him it’s time to go out of his com­fort zone again.

“Ei­ther we evolve,” Rivera said, “or we go ex­tinct.”


There was pos­i­tive mo­men­tum, in Rivera’s mind, be­fore the 2018 sea­son ended.

Rivera said he felt like he had found a rhythm again in Week 15 against New Or­leans, and felt it across the en­tire de­fense. De­spite be­ing a loss, that game was one of Carolina’s best de­fen­sive per­for­mances all sea­son.

Against Sean Pay­ton’s of­fense, Rivera felt “it” so much he even called one cov­er­age

The cov­er­age, though known by a dif­fer­ent name in Carolina, was the same “83-ad­just” that was one of Rivera’s stal­warts when he was coach­ing in Chicago and in San Diego.

“I just kept go­ing back in my mind, “That’s like ‘83-ad­just!’ and I just stuck with it,” he laughed.

The calls forced a Saints three-and-out, and Rivera felt like he was back.

“Things just started to click,” he said. “That’s the thing I started to feel again in those last three games, was that roll, that feel that you get.”

Rivera moved for­ward by reach­ing back to the fa­mil­iar.

But now, it’s about stay­ing in that rhythm with­out be­ing blinded by complacency — to find a bal­ance be­tween the in­no­va­tion that pushes him for­ward and the les­sons that built his own foun­da­tion.

Like splashes of rain­bow paint across a por­trait of Churchill.

DAVID T. FOS­TER III dt­fos­[email protected]­lot­teob­

Head coach Ron Rivera must move him­self and the Carolina Pan­thers for­ward in 2019. How will he do it?

JEFF SINER [email protected]­lot­teob­

Pan­thers coach Ron Rivera on complacency: “You do the same thing for eight years, and you get in that com­fort zone, ‘This is what we do and this is how we do it.’ ”

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