Ron Rivera will always hold a special place in Panthers fans’ hearts

Ron Rivera was almost too soft for football. Not “soft” in the literal, dull-witted notion of “alpha male” masculinity spouted from a flapping head sense, but in a real, personal sense. His approach put his players, his guys, above all else. In the end, it cost Rivera his job, and it makes saying goodbye especially difficult.

It wasn’t hard to say goodbye to John Fox when the Panthers jettisoned him after nine seasons and a Super Bowl appearance. Fox had the personality of musty cream drapes, stashed in a forgotten beige room, in a wing of a grand, antiquated house. Never an exciting man, it always felt like the Panthers won in spite of Fox, not because of him. When Fox left in 2011, a sigh of relief oozed out of Charlotte.

Rivera wasn’t the sexy pick. He wasn’t the coveted pick. He wasn’t the kind of coach who made fans rub their hands together in anticipation. It was a conservative, sensible choice by an organization with a history of conservative, sensible choices. The immediate expectation was the defense-minded Rivera would select one of the can’t-miss defensive prospects with the No. 1 pick in the 2011 Draft — a quartet of Von Miller, Marcell Dareus, Patrick Peterson or Nick Fairley, all practically screaming “All-Pro”. Punting on an offensive player would have been conservative, sensible — just like the Panthers, just like Rivera. Or so we thought.

Instead, the Panthers took Cam Newton. Unquestionably the most gutsy decision in franchise history. Newton’s resume out of Auburn spoke for itself, but there were real concerns about his style of play and whether it could translate to the NFL. Selecting the linebacker-sized iconoclast at quarterback sent a message to fans in Carolina: This was not going to be the same milquetoast franchise they’d come to expect. The Panthers, and by extension Rivera, would live or die on Newton’s ability to become a franchise quarterback.

One of Rivera’s most laudable traits was his willingness to admit when he needed help. One of his first hires was offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, a man who not only had experience running offenses, but critical on-field management abilities from his time as assistant head coach of the San Diego Chargers. Chudzinski unlocked Newton’s potential. The rookie threw for over 4,000 yards in his first season — an incredible feat for any rookie, otherworldly for Newton, whom many analysts wrote off before the season began.

Newton became the Panthers’ biggest story, but behind the scenes, players were quickly falling in love with their coach. Rivera played for the Bears in the 1980s and applied this experience to developing an immediate rapport with his players. It wasn’t long before the Panthers were running through a brick wall for him, something they hadn’t done for anyone else. As hackneyed as the phrase might be, it’s the only one that fits. Rivera’s team wholly bought into his vision: an aggressive, risky style of football that had Newton on one side of the ball taking over like the phenom he was, and the defense on the other holding the line so Newton could work his magic without the pressure of needing to throw deep every down.

After two years of marginal improvement, which lifted the team’s record from 6-10 in 2012 to 7-9 the following year, the Panthers were hit with upheaval. General manager Marty Hurney was out, replaced by Dave Gettleman. Chudzinski left to become head coach of the Cleveland Browns, and in his place stepped Mike Shula. Rivera was in danger of losing his job after a middling start, but he received one more “show me” season. Knowing this could be his last chance, Rivera started throwing everything at the wall. He dialed his risk-taking up to 11, and that’s when “Riverboat Ron” was born.

Rivera’s complete faith in his players to pick up fourth downs or make key defensive stops created a bond of utter trust. It powered the Panthers to a 12-4 season and a playoff berth — enough to justify keeping the coach.

But there was one weak link. Shula, the newly-promoted offensive coordinator, was excellent at building a ground game but incapable of creating an NFL-caliber passing attack, a malady that dated back to 1999 when he was the offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Carolina tumbled to 29th in the NFL in passing yards in 2013, down from 16th, all while Newton continued to carry the ball more than 100 times per season.

Even as Newton won MVP in 2015, the woeful passing continually reared its head. Receivers came in and out of Carolina in an endless cycle to try and make something fit. Tight end Greg Olsen was the only constant, and though he put up monster seasons, the Panthers never managed to be better than 19th in the league in total passing yards under Shula’s watch.

Through it all, Rivera stuck by Shula, just as he did his players. It often fell on him to justify Shula’s place on the staff, and answer front office questions like a GM while Gettleman increasingly shied away from the public eye. Statistically and anecdotally, the offense was failing, but Rivera remained adamant that Shula was the right guy for the job.

The price of a bad passing game was having even more reliance on Newton on the ground. In 2017, he carried the ball 139 times. That record has since been surpassed by Lamar Jackson but he and Newton are very different players. Whereas Jackson’s running style avoids contact, Newton plays more like a fullback, making direct contact at the point of attack and bowling over linemen.

Those two years were pivotal. Newton was being driven into the ground out of desperation in the run game at a time where there was no specific need to do so. He’d shown his chops as a passer and the Panthers had more than enough help at running back with Jonathan Stewart, followed by the addition of Christian McCaffery. It resulted in Newton taking far more hits than were necessary and unquestionably made the team worse as a result.

Rivera could have, and should have, pulled the plug on Shula much sooner. It’s unclear why he was so loyal. Perhaps Rivera legitimately believed in Shula. Maybe it was all a cover. The end result was the same. Floundering mediocrity returned and both Gettleman and Shula were shown the door when incoming owner David Tepper took over the franchise in May 2018.

The overhaul nearly worked. This Panthers’ new chapter under Rivera was briefly electric. Marty Hurney returned to become the GM after a five-year absence and Norv Turner was named offensive coordinator. Many assumed it would take a while for Newton to adapt to Turner’s offense, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, Carolina jumped out to a 6-2 start, and Newton was on pace for his best season in the NFL, throwing for 1,893 yards in the first half of the season, along with 17 touchdowns and four interceptions.

Then everything went wrong.

It started with a whisper. Newton appeared on the Panthers injury report with a shoulder injury, which Rivera brushed off as “soreness.” Murmurs grew louder when the Panthers subbed off their starting quarterback to attempt a Hail Mary. Then, on national TV, it happened. Newton was hit hard in the shoulder on a cold Thursday night in Week 8 in Pittsburgh, and suddenly he didn’t look like himself anymore.

Rivera was adamant that things were OK, but it wasn’t long before talk of Newton’s drop in play became raucous. On paper things looked solid, but Newton began missing wide open receivers, his interceptions more than doubled, and by the time Week 14 rolled around against New Orleans he was barely able to throw the ball with velocity. It’s here where Rivera made another critical mistake, this time by sticking with an injured Newton for far too long. By trying to cover for the injury, Rivera unintentionally threw Newton under the bus. Here was an NFL coach saying his quarterback wasn’t injured even though Newton was playing like trash. As a result, he made the team’s precipitous drop to 7-9 fall seem to be Newton’s fault, which was tragically unfair.

Shortly after the 2018 season, the Panthers announced Newton would undergo shoulder surgery. Finally, there was justification for the poor season, but there were still lingering questions: Why didn’t the Panthers bench Newton sooner to start his rehabilitation? What benefit was there to playing Newton hurt? And perhaps most damaging, was Rivera keeping Newton on the field to protect himself?

Still, hope sprang eternal once again entering 2019. Newton said he felt better than ever. There was a sense this could actually be Carolina’s year. A revamped 3-4 defense with a healthy Newton was prepared to make waves.

Until the quarterback was hurt again, this time a preseason foot injury. And the questions returned.

The same song started playing out of Charlotte. Rivera was forced to answer questions about Newton’s health, staunchly saying the quarterback was fine and even going so far as insinuating that the issues were in his head. Newton didn’t run at all. The once-dominant dual-threat quarterback was replaced with a shadow of himself in the pocket, one who couldn’t hit open receivers because he wasn’t able to plant on his foot.

Finally, after two weeks of consternation, Newton was shut down. The team announced his foot injury was worse than expected and Newton was eventually placed on injured reserve.

What has happened the rest of the season is largely insignificant. Kyle Allen’s early success, the potential of a playoff run — all background noise to the more significant issue that Tepper, as owner, had grown tired of. It became clear while Rivera was every bit the inspirational leader who made players and fans fall in love with him, he also struggled to make good decisions at critical moments. The man who made a name for himself by taking risks could no longer place a good bet.

On Wednesday morning in Charlotte, Rivera took to the podium and said goodbye to the city after quietly meeting with his team. His voice cracked while talking about what his players meant to him. He talked up the core of the Panthers, saying while he was excited for the next chapter in his life, he believes in the future of the Carolina Panthers.

The press conference was quintessentially Ron Rivera. A soft-spoken love letter to his players and the game of football. A sobering reminder of how difficult the game can be. Rivera was the most affable, personal coach in team history. He also happened to be the best, but being liked and successful in the NFL don’t always run in lockstep.

In the end we’re left with questions. What if Rivera had made those hard personnel decisions sooner? What if he took his lumps from the outset of Newton’s injury? It’s unclear whether Rivera could ever be the guy to bring a Lombardi Trophy to Charlotte, but it still sucks to see him gone. Perhaps that’s the biggest compliment any football fan can give a coach, liking him so much that you don’t even care if he never wins the big one.

All I know is Rivera will be missed. His players are crushed after losing not only their coach, but a friend. The cycle now begins again in Carolina and we’ll wait to see whether a new decade of success is established, or if everything collapses.

The past 10 years in Carolina haven’t always been successful, but they’ve been nice. It’s always felt good to be a fan. Rivera deserves credit for that.

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