Carolina Panthers  

 

Ron Rivera: Carolina Panthers can't coast on past success

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Ron Rivera has some great memories from last fall -- and he's looking for all the people around him to forget the events that inspired those memories.

The way he sees it, as intoxicating as the Carolina Panthers' breakout 12-win season of 2013 was, the risk is there for the players and coaches to get drunk on their own success. That's why Rivera sought the counsel this offseason of iconic former Raiders coach John Madden, who helped establish a decades-long run of sustained success in Oakland.

"He said, 'Ron, the status quo isn't good enough,' " the Panthers coach recounted, on the 50-yard line of Gillette Stadium before Friday's preseason matchup with the New England Patriots. "The biggest mistake he said he's always heard was guys finishing in a certain place and thinking that's where they're gonna start (the next year). He said, 'Go back to the basics. I always started with the basics, I always encourage people to start with the basics.' So we went in and that's what we did, right back to the basics; we went to Page 1 of the playbook."

The Panthers were about to get another reminder -- by way of a 30-7 loss to the Pats in which star quarterback Cam Newton suffered a fractured rib -- of how much harder it is to make something stick in the NFL than it is to build something up in the first place.

History bears out that lesson, too. Carolina was one of five teams to reach the playoffs last year after missing the tournament in 2012, joining the Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs. Of the 61 such "new" playoff teams over the prior 10 seasons, 34 failed to make it back to the promised land following their breakthrough efforts. And while 15 of those 61 squads did win playoff games in the year-after season, another 14 registered double-digit-loss campaigns.

Rivera is acutely aware of all that. Which is why, like he said, he's not talking about building off of 2013.

One thing that made sending that message easier was having a quarterback who was recovering from offseason ankle surgery. Of course, hearing that Newton would need to be cut open back in March wasn't exactly good news, especially with the team embarking on what was practically a complete overhaul of the receiving corps that saw veteran mainstay Steve Smith released. But it worked out, in a way, as the fourth-year pro was forced to find details to work on to fill his days and the pressure was ratcheted up on everyone else in the Panthers' facility. And as long as the rib heals by Week 1's season-opener, as expected, Newton should have plenty to show for all his effort.

"That (ankle surgery) might've been the best thing that ever happened to him," Rivera said, speaking before Newton injured his rib. "I mean, I'd love to have had him able to practice, on top of everything that he's done. But at the same time, I've watched him, and to keep him involved in OTAs and minicamp, (offensive coordinator) Mike Shula had him present to the team, install for the team, install for the quarterbacks. During practice, he was over there with the receivers talking about what he's looking at and where he wants to throw the ball."

The positive strides aren't limited to the mental side of the game, either. Per Rivera, Newton's footwork has been "so much better than it was," and the quarterback has learned to balance himself better, turning his body and opening his hip to the receiver instead of torquing the ball like he used to.

That kind of improvement signals what Rivera is looking for team-wide: A recognition that there are still plenty of flaws for the club to work through, even for units of strength. Third-down defense -- a category where Carolina, which finished second overall in total defense last season, ranked 12th -- has been one, even though standout linemen Greg Hardy (whose availability remains uncertain, pending a possible suspension) and Charles Johnson are in the Panthers' stable. The running game, which ranked 11th in 2013, is another.

"Consistency's a big word for us," Rivera said. "One thing we did well: In 15 of our 16 games, we rushed for over 100 yards. But in (five) of those, the quarterback led us in rushing. I'd like to get us to the point where it's always the backs that lead us in rushing, and not have to rely on Cam's ability."

Such tweaking is going on everywhere, including with the team's leadership structure.

As the core that Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman are building around starts to mature, the idea is to begin handing the reins over to players like linebacker Thomas Davis (31 years old), center Ryan Kalil (29), Newton (25) and young defensive phenom Luke Kuechly. As a former player himself, Rivera understands that the message will come across stronger when the guys in the locker room are hearing it from their peers.

That's why it was important for other players to see Newton and Kuechly -- who nabbed the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2013 -- in the building as early as they did during the spring.

"The biggest thing you wanna emphasize is (to) get these guys to take ownership, to hold each other to the standard," Rivera said. "The thing that's hardest on me every day in practice is to be the cheerleader, to push guys to the line. ... I emphasize to the coaches and the players, 'Hold each other accountable, don't rely on just one person.' I got this from being around coach (Mike) Ditka (who ran the Bears during Rivera's time as a linebacker in Chicago): Get the players to take ownership. They take ownership, then they hold each other to a higher standard."

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From where he stood in New England on Friday, Rivera could see that standard on the opposite sideline.

For all the flashes in the pan in the aforementioned group of 61 playoff neophytes, plenty of success stories can be found. The 2011 season in Denver and San Francisco and the 2012 season in Seattle proved to be much more than singular breakthroughs; they were precursors to those teams becoming card-carrying members of the NFL elite. And, of course, there are the Patriots, who have been the model of consistency in the new millennium.

That is where Rivera is trying to take the Panthers, just as Chip Kelly is trying to do with the Eagles following their 2013 renaissance, and Mike McCoy and Andy Reid are aiming to do after delivering hope last fall in their respective new homes of San Diego and Kansas City.

"Our vision is to be a consistent winner, to win Super Bowls," Rivera said. "I'd love to have something like this; this is the goal, everybody measures themselves against this team. They really do. It was the 49ers at one point, and now it's New England. If you can achieve these goals, if you can put yourself in this position, where people talk about you in the same vein, then you've done something right."

Easier said than done? Sure it is.

But clearly, Rivera knows that.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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