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Panthers’ Ron Rivera has nothing but love for Tampa Bay’s new coach

If you’re looking for bad blood or ill feelings between Ron Rivera and Lovie Smith, you won’t find them with the Panthers’ head coach.

Rivera sent Smith a congratulatory text Thursday morning after the former Chicago Bears head coach was reported to be the next head coach at Tampa Bay, setting up two showdowns next year between the coaches that once worked together in Chicago.

Rivera was Smith’s defensive coordinator from 2004-2006 and was part of a coaching staff that helped the Bears, which had the fifth-best defense in the league, to Super Bowl XLI following the 2006 season. But Smith did not renew Rivera’s contract and instead hired Bob Babich to take over as defensive coordinator.

“There was disappointment more than anything else,” Rivera said. “I would have loved to stay in Chicago. At that point it had been my home. I had been there 16 years, I started my coaching career there, I played there and we went to a Super Bowl (as a player and coach).

“But the decision was made and the discussion that coach and I had was, it’s not a personal thing. This is something he wanted to do and it’s the direction he wanted to head so I lived with it and moved on. It’s never been an issue.”

Rivera said Smith texted him when the Panthers were 1-3 following the Week 5 loss at Arizona and wished Rivera coach well. Smith also texted Rivera after the Panthers won the NFC South in last week’s win at Atlanta, Rivera said.

“Playing him twice a year, you know what you’re going to get,” said tight end Greg Olsen, who played in Chicago from 2007-2010. “You’re going to get a well-disciplined team. They’re going to execute their defense. They’re not going to be ultra-flashy. They’re going to rely on their assignments. … It’s going to be a good fit for them and change a little bit the complexity of the division.”

Rivera called his relationship with Smith “good and solid” and added that Smith’s hiring helps make the Buccaneers a better team already.

Smith also becomes the fourth minority head coach in the NFL, joining Rivera, Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin. This year’s hiring of minorities is off to a better start than last year. Of the eight vacant head coaching jobs last year, no minority coach was selected.

“First and foremost, a very good football coach got hired, who happens to be minority. And I want to make sure people understand that that’s how I feel about it,” Rivera said. “To me it’s about hiring good people and good coaches more so than it is anything else, and he’s a very good football coach. He’s had a lot of success, he’s been to NFC Championship games, he’s been to a Super Bowl. Having said he is a minority, yes it is. I think people got to understand that as long as they’re hiring who they believe is the best football coach I think that’s what it’s about.”

Nortman honored: Panthers punter Brad Nortman didn’t win NFC special teams player of the week in any week during the month of December.

But Thursday, Nortman was honored for the sum of his performances in the final month of the regular season and was named NFC special teams player of the month.

Nortman had a strong December to close out a season that set a franchise record. The second-year punter had team single-season records of gross average (47.8 yards) and net average (41.6 yards).

Against the Saints in Week 16, Nortman pinned the Saints inside their 5-yard line twice on what he called the two best punts of the season.

“It’s good because it reflects not only individual success but also punt team success,” Nortman said. “I kind of view it as a punt team, team of the month. It’s good that I won it in my name, but it reflects our team having success and helping us get to where we are.”

Another big body: The Panthers signed offensive lineman Derek Dennis to a futures contract Thursday, according to a league source.

Dennis, 6-foot-5 and 316 pounds, spent the season on the Bears’ practice squad. He entered the league as an undrafted free agent with the Dolphins in 2012 after playing at Temple.

Joseph Person contributed.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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