Ron Rivera's NFL voyage: Panthers coach returns home for SB50

SAN JOSE -- The sports radio producer picked up the phone, surprised to hear Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera sounding apologetic on the other end.

"I know we have an interview scheduled," Rivera said. "But I have some personal matters to attend to."

Ten minutes later, Rivera called back to complete the radio hit as planned. Unbeknownst to the radio producer, a fire had nearly destroyed Rivera's bedroom early that morning, causing extensive damage that would force Rivera out of his house for nearly eight months. Rivera was fresh off his first playoff victory as an NFL head coach, and five days away from a Divisional Round matchup against the defending champion Seahawks. But Rivera had made an obligation to an unseen producer, and he is nothing if not a man of his word.

Rivera is at the pinnacle of the football world, 30 years after being part of one of the NFL's greatest teams, because he inspires trust. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson stuck with Rivera after some rocky early seasons. Rivera's coaching staff repays his loyalty, achieving a level of continuity rarely seen in the modern NFL. His players all swear by a man who treats them like men. This is a Panthers team and a coaching staff that has grown together, and Rivera is a coach who has been building to this moment for more than three decades.

Football 101

"Working with Buddy [Ryan] was a great education. It was Football 101," Rivera said this week, when asked about his evolution as a coach. "You learned the nuances of what he was doing and why he wanted to do it. It wasn't just Xs and Os ... it was a feel and a sense for the game."

Rivera entered the NFL as a second-round draft pick out of Cal in 1984, landing on one of the league's signature defenses with an absolute original for a defensive coordinator. Buddy Ryan prodded Rivera and his teammates constantly, believing that players who couldn't handle pressure in meeting rooms would fold on Sundays. Rivera wasn't asked to memorize the defense, but to understand it.

"As a linebacker in Buddy Ryan's system, you didn't just know what you did," Rivera said. "You knew what both linebackers did. You knew what the defensive line did. You knew what was going on behind you. We were taught the game because of Coach Ryan and what he believed in."

Ryan would leave the Bears after the '85 team's Super Bowl championship, but the lessons he imparted have stayed with Rivera. After a nine-year career as an inside linebacker, Rivera became a pro coach in 1997 in Chicago. Whether working as a position coach, coordinator or head coach, Rivera believes the game must be taught first through concepts. That started with Ryan and continued as he learned under men like former Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson and former Bears head coach Lovie Smith.

Rivera's third stint with the Bears is instructive. His three-year run as defensive coordinator under Smith from 2004 through '06 included a Super Bowl appearance, two top-five defenses -- and a deeply disappointing ending. Rivera's contract was not renewed after the team's title-game loss to Peyton Manning and the Colts. At that point, Rivera had interviewed for nine head-coaching jobs over two seasons without landing a gig. Instead of moving up in the coaching ranks as planned, Rivera lost his job and was forced to take a step back as a position coach under Ted Cottrell in San Diego.

Most coaches would be bitter. (The Bears made the wrong decision, falling out of the top-20 defenses for two years running.) Rivera looked at the setback as a new path.

"It was an opportunity to start over again and rebuild who I am as a football coach," Rivera said. "I used it as a catalyst to re-start and get things going again."

Rivera can edge toward coachspeak when he starts talking like this. But he has connected with so many of his players over the years because he is genuine. When he looks you in the eye and tells you that he never doubted he would get a head-coaching opportunity, you believe him. He credits his positivity for helping him every step of the way, another claim that is impossible to deny. His flexibility has helped, as well.

In a league trending toward three-man and multiple defensive fronts, Rivera still prefers a base four-man (4-3) D-line. It just didn't make sense in San Diego. The personnel and scheme with the Chargers were all geared toward a 3-4 defense, in large part because of the imprint Wade Phillips made there as defensive coordinator from 2004 through '06.

When Rivera replaced Cottrell as DC at midseason in 2008, he didn't try to jam San Diego's roster into his preferred defensive approach. He adapted and produced fast results, culminating in the NFL's No. 1 defense in 2010. His success there led to the Panthers hiring him for his first head-coaching job in 2011.

The breadth of knowledge and schemes has come in handy as a head coach, never more so than this Sunday, when his offense faces off against Phillips' outstanding Broncos defense. Phillips, like Rivera, believes in simplifying his attack in order to help his players fly to the ball. The experience in San Diego taught Rivera to mold his scheme to his players, not the other way around.

Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, Rivera's defensive coordinator from Day 1 in Carolina, praises Rivera's flexibility. They have incorporated zone-blitz elements from Jim Johnson's scheme in Philadelphia -- where Rivera and McDermott worked on the same staff -- and made it their own.

"We've taken that system and blended it with some of the other things we both picked up along the way and added our own flavor to it," McDermott said this week. "So, really, what we've done in Carolina is build a defense brick by brick."

Rivera's flexibility also extends to learning from mistakes. The coach compiled a record of 13-21 in his first two-plus seasons in Carolina. He has cited the team's Week 2 loss at Buffalo in 2013 as the low point of his career.

"I second-guessed my decision and kicked the field goal, as opposed to going for it," Rivera said via the Charlotte Observer. "I had contemplated that sort of situation a long time in the offseason and I didn't stick with what I wanted to do, and that bothered me."

That mistake motivated Rivera to go for it on fourth down more often the rest of the 2013 season, inspiring the team's surprising 12-4 record and Rivera's new "Riverboat Ron" nickname, not to mention a new Twitter handle. The offensive aggression got the headlines, but the Panthers had been a defense-first team until this season's MVP campaign by Cam Newton.

McDermott, who figures to be a head coach one day, believes their system is "second to none." It's hard to argue. During a time in the NFL where teams spend outrageous resources on outside pass rushers and in the secondary, the Panthers have been a top-10 defense four years running with a much different formula.

They coach up pieces in the secondary that few other teams wanted, often replacing them on an annual basis with little drop-off. This Panthers team is built up the middle. Two cornerstone defensive tackles (Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei) and two rangy linebackers (Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis) fuel the rest of the defense.

It shouldn't be surprising that linebackers remain so close to Rivera's heart.

Linebacker mentality lives

Rookie Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson can't help but notice that his head coach spends a lot of time around him. Rivera is the coach of the entire team, but he takes a special interest in Thompson, Kuechly, Davis and the rest of the linebacker group.

"At practice, he's always coming over there and watching, making sure we are doing everything right. He's right there with technique. I learn a lot from him. I think he still has something in him to go out there and play, honestly. He looks great," Thompson said with a laugh Tuesday.

Rivera stresses teaching ability in his coaches. Kuechly, who won Defensive Player of the Year after the 2013 season, says that Rivera picks up things as an ex-player that other coaches simply couldn't.

"Whether it's a stance or how you're blitzing or how you are playing a coverage, all these tidbits he can throw your way," Kuechly explained. "You think about it and realize it makes a lot of sense."

Kuechly and Rivera share a lot of traits. They are extremely serious about football without ever losing sight of their love of the sport. They are well-respected by cohorts. Kuechly just happens to have the unfair skill set that Rivera never did as a player. Kuechly and Davis rank among the rangiest pair of linebackers the game has seen, something Rivera, in particular, is in position to appreciate.

"The beautiful thing of watching Thomas and Luke work together ... it reminds me of so much of the great guys I've been around," Rivera marveled this week. "Whether it's been Mike Singletary and Wilber Marshall. Or Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Now, to see these two guys in person, that's pretty special."

Rivera still sees the game as a linebacker, and Thompson was hardly the only Panther this week to mention Rivera's simmering intensity.

"He's usually pretty calm, but he does get fired up. It's fun to see, for the most part -- unless it was something you did," Kuechly said. "He definitely still has that edge. He brings it out when he needs it."

Said Short: "If he doesn't see the defense have that right mindset or edge, he gets fired up. Next thing you know, we're back to the defense we should be."

Davis said that Rivera will get his point across in a direct and respectful way. That was on full display in one December exchange with the media after he was questioned about the team's handling of quarterback Cam Newton getting checked for a concussion in a victory over the Saints. Rivera suddenly had bite when dealing with a local reporter.

"We follow the rules here. Don't question my integrity when it comes to these things. Understand that," Rivera snapped. "I try to be as forthright as I can when I answer your questions and when I'm doing that, the least I could do is get the common courtesy that I'm being believed. I take it very seriously."

Rivera can accept criticism about game management. He knows that he will be asked tough injury questions. But Rivera cannot abide any suggestion that he's not telling the truth.

A coach who relates

Rivera essentially was coaching when he asked that reporter to not question his integrity in December. The same reporter posed a question at Tuesday's press conference in San Jose, and Rivera asked him by name how he was doing and how his trip to the West Coast went. It was a small window into Rivera's leadership style. He is going to tell it like it is -- and show he cares about you afterward.

Rivera spoke often this week about his growth as a head coach since taking over the Carolina job in 2011. I asked him what specifically he does better now.

"Telling people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear," Rivera said.

Ninth-year veteran defensive end Charles Johnson said that Rivera's history as a player went a long way in the locker room when he was hired.

"Guys rallied behind him because of his background," Johnson said. "He was a player ... he knows how it is. He knows the ins and outs. He relates to stuff like that. Once you have guys that relate to you, guys just follow."

Davis has overcome three ACL surgeries to develop into one of the game's most versatile linebackers under Rivera. He won the 2014 Walter Payton Man of the Year award and credits Rivera for his influence.

"He's not only had a huge effect on me from a football standpoint, but off the field, the way he carries himself," Davis said. "Without a doubt, he's made me a better football player and a better person. ... One of the things he preaches week in and week out: It's not about one man. We love playing for him because he's a guy that genuinely cares about us."

One consistent message from Rivera to his players this week is to savor this moment. He knows how hard it is to get back to the Super Bowl; his dominant '85 Bears squad never returned. He also embraces what a singular moment this game is for him personally. He was born in Fort Ord, California, less than 80 miles from the site of Super Bowl 50. He played at Seaside High School and played college football at the University of California. His parents drove to "Opening Night" in San Jose, amazed as their son walked across a faux Golden Gate Bridge 50 feet above media and cheering Panthers fans.

Rivera's open love for the moment and recognition that it could all change next week is anathema to a professional coaching culture that remains guarded with the media, and brings all questions back to "one game at a time." Rivera doesn't neatly fit the boxes of what we look for in great coaches.

The easiest way for an NFL head coach to earn media adulation is with Xs and Os that we'll never truly understand. The next-easiest way is to give fiery locker room speeches and press conferences, roaming the sideline like a maniac. Rivera, who should win his second NFL Coach of the Year award one day before his 17-1 Panthers play in Super Bowl 50, has taken a subtler route. He leads and he teaches, whether it's with his players or his coaching staff.

"To me, the best thing that Ron does is he gets out from behind the desk and spends time with his players in the locker room," McDermott told me, when asked what made Rivera special as a coach. "We know how important that is in today's NFL. Ron's a leader of people and puts them in position to be successful, and he listens to the players. He does a good job of that, and yet at the same time, he knows the way he wants it to look and how he wants it done. He never delegates the standard."

Rivera doesn't want his coaches chained to the desk just to prove to him they work hard. He knows they work hard. He also knows how difficult it is to make the NFL as a player, so he tries not to sweat the small stuff. He wants to trust them, and earn their trust back.

"Be your personality," Rivera preaches to his players. "Don't be more. Don't be less."

Rivera has followed his own advice, and it has taken him home, back on the game's biggest stage, part of another team angling to go down with the all-time greats.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @GreggRosenthal.

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