SPARTANBURG After practice Monday, Ron Rivera walks to a bench beneath a tent and we hold our annual one-on-one training camp interview.
Q. Who’s your camp MVP?
A. I don’t know if I want to tell you. You might be a jinx. (Last August Rivera said his most valuable player was wide receiver Armanti Edwards. Edwards got hurt, released and is now a Chicago Bear.)
Wow. Well, (defensive end) Frank Alexander. He’s been the most consistent in practice day in and day out. I know he’s got some issues to deal with early in the season (He’ll sit out four games for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.) But hopefully what he’s doing will continue.
Q. Who’s the biggest surprise?
A. I would say (rookie receiver) Philly Brown. He’s done some things that make you go, wow.
(Receiver) Tavarres King. I was concerned coming out of (organized team activities) and minicamp. But we put the pads on him and he’s catching attention.
(Receiver) Kealoha Pilares. He looks faster than ever.
I would say (rookie cornerback) Bené Benwikere, but this is what we expected from Bené.
(Linebacker) Jason Williams is starting to flash. This is his fourth year with us so you would expect him to take the next step.
And (cornerback) Josh Norman. The thing about Josh, compared to the past, is he’s doing things within the scheme. People would look at what happened in his first two years and say, wow. But a lot of that was freelancing. He was taking risks and then he’d get in a game and have to play less risky and with better technique and his technique wasn’t good enough. This year he’s doing things the right way. That’s when you know the kid has a chance.
Q. What position worries you most?
A. Well, I talk about the offensive line, but with what we saw Friday night (in the exhibition against Buffalo) I hope to see again Sunday night (against Kansas City). If we do I can be a little more confident in that group.
Q. Didn’t the run blocking concern you?
A. Oh without a doubt. But go back and look. We didn’t have our best backs in there. Kenjon (Barner) and those guys did miss a couple of cuts. Michael Tolbert missed a cut on our very first play.
Q. You’re the NFL Coach of the Year. How has that changed your life?
A. Hopefully it hasn’t. Hopefully I’m the same guy that recognizes I still have a lot of work to do and we still have a lot of work to do. We have not arrived and I have not arrived. When I’m standing on a podium holding a Super Bowl trophy then I‘ve arrived.
Q. Weren’t there offseason trips and perks and opportunities?
A. There were, and trying to manage and control those things was hard. I did the Pepsi commercial with (linebacker) Luke (Kuechly). What I did was talk to (Pepsi) and say, “What can we do? Let’s do some things for charity.” So Pepsi will donate money and product in my name to the USO, the Ronald McDonald House and the Humane Society.
Q. When nobody’s around do you ever shout, “I am coach of the year?”
A. When I won it I thought about all the things I’ve done, all the meetings with people, all the conversations I’ve had with (Panthers owner) Mr. (Jerry) Richardson, with (director of football operations) Brandon Beane, with (general manager) Dave Gettleman and (former GM) Marty Hurney.
I think of conversations I’ve had with (former NFL coaches) John Madden, Mike Ditka and Bill Cowher. I think of all the people I look to for advice in town: (businessmen) Cam Harris, Johnny Harris, Felix Sabates, Ric Elias.
I take something from all these guys whether they realize it or not. Felix has taken me aside and I’ve asked, “How did you do this with your race teams?” Just being around Michael Jordan (at Charlotte Hornets’ games).
There are so many resources (in Charlotte) that have reached out and helped me. So to sit in a room and say, “Yeah, you’re right, that’s right, that’s who I am,” doesn’t happen.
Q. Do you care about the predictions that have you losing most of your games?
A. Not really. There’s a reason you line up and play. If we’d done what people said we would last year you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Q. I’d be here. I need a column.
A. The truth of the matter is it’s all part of the challenge. I started our first meeting (of training camp) with: “Why not?” We haven’t had two winning seasons in a row. We haven’t had an NFC South team repeat.
Q. What’s the best thing about being Carolina’s coach?
A. Players. The owner. You’ve got an owner that really cares and that’s willing to show a little faith. The people. When things were tough a lot of people were still there and still believed. And you want to be successful for them.
Q. How many players have you caught sneaking out of their Spartanburg dormitories?
A. Nobody. We have really good security. And believe me, I’m a trusting guy.
Q. I seem to recall that when you played for Ditka in Chicago you broke curfew.
A. But, see, but back in the day we didn’t have to worry about the social aspect of it. Secondly, it was the right kind of guys that did it. Third, Ditka found a teaching moment. He saw a group of veterans hanging out together having a beer, playing pool at the VFW in Platteville, Wis. It was right around midnight. He saw that as a good thing. He saw that as a group of guys trying to get together.
Today if (an outsider) found out he’d put it on Twitter and say, “Oh, look at these guys. I know they have a curfew and they’re all out hanging out.”
Q. What did Ditka do when he caught you?
A. He bought us a round and he shot a game of pool and he looked at his watch and he goes, “You know, its midnight and we got practice tomorrow and I don’t know about you guys, but I’m headed out.” Which we took as, we better be going.
Q. Were you nervous?
A. I was scared to death. Man, they’re going to fine me and take the money out of my check and Stephanie (Rivera’s wife) is going to see my check and she’s going to kill me.
Q. You never were fined and you had a great practice the next morning? Maybe sneaking out pays. What would you do if you caught your players out after curfew?
A. I have a group of guys that if they did I would not be mad because I know they would be bonding. Probably eight or nine of them.
You’re lucky camp ends Tuesday. At least 50 players would think you’re talking about them.