After hearing about a few locker room issues from veteran players two years ago, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera had workers haul a couch and a tabletop desk into his private locker room at Bank of America Stadium and turn it into a mini-office.
It’s not much to look at – Rivera keeps his framed photos and NFL memorabilia in his main office on the 200 level of the stadium.
In fact, veteran linebacker Thomas Davis was among a couple of players who said this week they didn’t realize Rivera’s locker area was actually an office space.
“He’s been in there!” Rivera said of Davis.
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Never mind the aesthetics. The point was for Rivera to move closer to the locker room and make himself more accessible to his players.
Rivera got the idea before the 2013 season after going to dinner with a few of the team leaders, who were told to speak freely. Neither Rivera nor center Ryan Kalil, who was at the dinner, would divulge what issues were discussed.
But Rivera says he was surprised by a few of the concerns and how players perceived certain things.
“My biggest concern was, ‘Well, why didn’t you guys tell me?’ It was always, ‘Well, Coach, I didn’t want to be that guy,’” Rivera told the Observer. “Then I realized, well, guys don’t want to have to come upstairs to see you. That’s hard. You go upstairs, you’ve got to go past security, past a bunch of other offices, go right past the general manager. I think at a certain point and time they don’t necessarily want to see those people. They want to see you.”
Kalil, Davis and other players say Rivera was never hard to find in the facility. But he makes more regular rounds through the locker room since moving downstairs, often padding through in his socks and sweats after a practice while chatting guys up.
Players genuinely like Rivera – and not only because the Panthers are winning or the locker-room cred he’s earned from the nine years he spent as a Chicago Bears linebacker, although both of those things help.
Besides his ability to relate well with everyone, Rivera’s coaches and players say what they respect most about Rivera is his unwavering approach – never too high, never too low.
It might not be as catchy as “Riverboat Ron,” but Panthers color analyst Eugene Robinson says Rivera is more like “Steady Eddie.”
“The flavor of what we see this season is a direct correlation to how he is as a coach,” said Robinson, who had a 16-year, NFL career. “If he was uptight and just a stickler and stuck in the mud, that would be miserable. But that’s not him at all. He is accessible, relational.”
The Panthers have benefited from Rivera’s calm, measured leadership. Players say his practice field demeanor is the same during this year’s undefeated season as it was during last year’s two-month winless streak.
Rivera says his steady-as-they-come philosophy comes from his father, Eugenio, a native of Puerto Rico who spent 32 years in the Army.
“One thing my dad’s always told me about leadership is when all hell’s breaking loose, everyone’s looking at you to see how you’re handling it,” Rivera added. “If you’re frantic and out of control, they’re going to be frantic and out of control. If you’re calm, cool and collected and doing the right things, they’ll follow you.”
Always expecting the best
Rivera is a glass-half-full guy.
Whether estimating a player’s chance to return from injury or addressing his team’s ability to dig out of a seven-game winless stretch last season, Rivera always expresses his hope for the best.
The Panthers (11-0) will take a 15-game, regular-season winning streak into Sunday’s game at New Orleans (4-7). The streak, tied for the longest ever by an NFC team, began with a 41-10 pasting of the Saints last December at the Superdome.
Carolina had gone two months without a victory before the trip to New Orleans, dropping to 3-8-1.
Safety Roman Harper said there was one person who never lost hope – Rivera.
“He continued to harp on, ‘Hey, we’ve got a chance. I believe in you guys,’” Harper said. “We’ve got eight losses, and he’s the only one that’s continuing to preach to us about winning and how we can still do this thing and that I believe in you guys.”
Same approach every day
Losing wasn’t the only thing the Panthers overcame last season.
There were injuries to Cam Newton, then a car crash involving their franchise quarterback. Rivera’s house caught fire in January, a night after his first playoff victory as a head coach.
And the specter of Greg Hardy’s domestic violence case hung over the team all season.
“A lot of things going on, but (Rivera had) the same approach each and every day,” wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said.
Like Harper, Cotchery remembers Rivera’s optimism in the midst of his team’s long, dry spell in 2014. The Panthers ended up winning their final four games to capture the NFC South for the second year in a row.
“What (Rivera) talked about all along, ‘Everything’s right here before us. Let’s make sure we’re getting better today.’ Same approach,” Cotchery said. “Guys were, ‘Let’s go. Let’s get it going.’ We got on a roll and here we are right now.”
‘Right there in front of us’
Rivera said the fact that “crazy things were happening with the other teams” in the division – one loss after another – made his message easier to deliver.
“You just kept saying, ‘It’s right there in front of us. At some point we’re going to take advantage of it.’ And I just really felt that,” Rivera said. “We wanted it. I feel we had the type of leadership in that locker room that would keep pushing everybody. ... We just needed something good to happen, and sure enough it did.”
The leaders in the locker room took their direction for Rivera, according to Kalil.
“I think the one thing a lot of guys respect about coach is he’s been the same guy,” said Kalil, the Pro Bowl center. “I think a big part of the turnaround last year was we stayed the course. We didn’t start changing things. We just said we were close. And we were.”
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen says Rivera’s consistency permeates through the organization.
“Through the good days and the bad, if you’ve watched us practice, if you’ve watched us prepare, you couldn’t tell what happened the week before. I think that’s hard to do at this level,” Olsen said.
Some NFL coaches – including one in Buffalo – might puff out their chest a little more while overseeing an undefeated season.
Not Rivera, Olsen said.
“You probably couldn’t tell when he was the coach of a 3-8 team, and you can’t tell that he’s the coach of an 11-0 team.”
Picking his spots
Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert was in San Diego when Rivera was a Chargers assistant coach. He says Rivera wasn’t always Steady Eddie.
Rivera, 53, the NFL’s Coach of the Year in 2013, says he picks his spots for when to unload in the locker room.
“There’s a moment for it, to express your feelings on certain issues. Because if you do it all the time, it becomes, ‘Oh, here he goes again,’” Rivera said. “But if you do it and you do it at the right time, I think it’s a useful tool.”
Rivera admits he let his frustration get the best of him early during a playoff loss to San Francisco two years ago. Rivera was angry about a personal foul penalty called against safety Mike Mitchell, and let the officials know about it.
Perhaps taking a cue from their coach, two more Panthers defensive backs picked up personal fouls by the end of the 49ers’ victory.
“I got out of character and I think that hurt the team,” he said. “That fell on me because you’ve got to maintain your composure. If you disagree, you disagree. But you’ve got to move on. I didn’t. And that was probably the biggest mistake I made in that game was losing my composure in the first quarter because it spilled over to our players.”
But that’s not the norm.
Cotchery will steal glances at Rivera occasionally during games, and it’s impossible to tell whether the Panthers are up 20 or down 20.
“You never know what’s going on in the game because he’s just locked in,” Cotchery said. “He’ll say something here or there to coaches. But he just has that steady mindset throughout everything. It’s really good to have.”
Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula says Rivera is the same way with his staff.
“He’s always out in front providing direction and clarity. Never wavers. Never,” Shula said. “Very approachable, communicates really well with us and the players. And I think the success we’ve had has been a direction reflection of his leadership in all those areas, especially during the tough times.”
A challenge from Greg Hardy
Rivera says the situation with Hardy last season was among the toughest issues he’s dealt with in five seasons in Charlotte. While NFL officials and the Panthers’ front office were silent initially, Rivera faced a barrage of questions about the status of Hardy, who played in Week 1 against Tampa Bay.
After the Ray Rice video became public, Rivera said he decided to sit Hardy for the Week 2 game against Detroit before Hardy went on the commissioner’s list for the remainder of the season.
Rivera said the Hardy saga “whacked me pretty good for a week or two.”
“I had so many people telling me, you should do this and this should happen. All the people on the outside, all the people in this building were trying to help out. And the saying goes, if you’ve never been there don’t draw me a map,” Rivera said.
“I’d never experienced like that. One of the hardest things I had to deal with was knowing that people were calling up and our receptionist would pick the phone up, and people were yelling at them. That’s not fair. They were having to deal with things I was trying to deal with. ... We were trying to make a good decision.”
‘Everybody knows he’s in charge’
The phrase “players’ coach” gets thrown around too often in discussions about leadership styles among coaches.
It refers to a coach – often an ex-player – who gets what players are going through and has their backs. There’s also a negative connotation to being a players’ coach – the suggestion by critics that such coaches are too easy on players in disciplinary and other matters.
Rivera, who’s signed through the 2017 season, understands that.
So while he’s happy to have players plop down on his couch for informal meetings in his makeshift office, there are times when he summons players to the second floor to send a strong message.
“It’s funny, now if I really need to see a guy and it’s really an important issue, I may have him come upstairs,” he said. “That really is to drive home the point that this is important. We’ve got to focus in. We’ve got to pay attention.”
While Panthers players agree Rivera is approachable – Tolbert says he “knows how to relate to everybody from your $100 million quarterback to your rookie defensive tackle – Olsen said Rivera knows how to relate to players, as well as lead them.
“He can demand that sort of respect, he’s the unequivocal leader of the room. Then at the same time, he can let his guard down and joke around in the training room and be one of the guys. I think that balance he can strike is hard,” Olsen said.
“I think a lot of coaches are scared to do that so you always see their guard up, trying to prove that they’re in charge. Everyone knows he’s in charge. I think that’s his greatest strength. It’s obvious who the leader is, but he’s also an approachable, everyday, normal guy. And I think guys respond to that.”