SAN JOSE, CALIF. – His first NFL team did the Super Bowl Shuffle. He made it back to the big game with the team that popularized “Dabbing,” He isn’t conducting bed checks on his players this week, doesn’t count the hours his assistant coaches work and admits he let Jared Allen yell at him.
As an NFL coach, Ron Rivera’s strength is not worrying about looking strong. That unusual and empathetic approach has galvanized what looked like a mediocre team as recently as 15 months ago.
This week in the Bay Area, Rivera’s Carolina Panthers have become one of the loosest of all Super Bowl teams, one that may already be choreographing its championship celebrations.
There wasn’t much dancing at TCF Bank Stadium on Nov. 30, 2014. The Vikings beat Carolina 31-13 in bitter cold to leave the Panthers at 3-8-1.
Since then, they are 22-2. They have a chance Sunday to become the fourth team in NFL history to win 18 games in one season in part because Rivera, a protégé of Iron Mike Ditka, wielded a velvet glove.
Perhaps on the verge of getting fired, Rivera calmed his team, which won its final four regular-season games of 2014 to make the playoffs and foreshadow this Super Bowl run.
“I don’t know if it was necessarily confidence or just optimism,” star linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “But we were 3-8-1 and hadn’t won a game in who knows how long. And his message was always the same. He was never up. He was never down.
“He said: ‘We’re right where we need to be. If we take care of business we’re going to make the playoffs.’ For guys to hear that in the way that he said it, as calm as he did, it was very comforting, knowing that we’re 3-8-1 and coach still has extreme confidence in us. He isn’t giving up on what got us here. It’s a special thing and I think that’s why everyone appreciates him.”
Rivera’s working nickname is Riverboat Ron. This week he is returning to the area where he was always known as “Chico.” The son of a Puerto Rican father and Mexican mother, he traveled the world as an Army brat before settling in Monterey, Calif., and becoming a star linebacker at Cal.
After his playing career ended, he worked in TV for a year before becoming a coach. He became the defensive coordinator on the Bears team that lost to Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XLI, and then turned into a popular head coaching candidate. He interviewed with nine teams, didn’t get hired … and then got fired by the Bears, who couldn’t reach an agreement with his agent.
He wound up as an inside linebackers coach with the Chargers under Norv Turner, now the Vikings offensive coordinator.
“A lot of it has to do with being in San Diego obviously,” Rivera said. “Just getting the chance to work with Norv Turner, work for the Spanos family down in San Diego, I really did appreciate that. That was a great experience in my coaching career. Every now and then when you do have to take a step back, it gives you a chance to refocus and re-evaluate more so than anything else.
“When you have a guy, that’s gone through what Coach Turner has, to mentor you and give you advice. I think that was the right time in my career, to have a guy like him — a guy that really trusted me and gave me a lot of freedom, really supported me and helped me throughout that.”
Allen, the former Vikings star, said he has never enjoyed a locker room or coaching staff more than in this partial season in Carolina. He wanted to play in the NFC Championship Game despite a foot injury. Rivera talked with him one-on-one, listened to Allen’s angry arguments … and then made him inactive.
Now Allen says he appreciates Rivera’s approach, and his decision.
“It’s about the players taking responsibility for the team,” Rivera said. “It’s not about me shepherding them.”
From Iron Mike, to Reasonable Ron.