With a protein shake in one hand and a cup of coffee he just brewed in the office Keurig machine in the other, Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera walked into his office at Wofford College.
It was Monday morning, and I was right behind him. I had asked Rivera to give me a behind-the-scenes look at what he does on a typical morning at training camp, far away from the spotlight of the autumn Sunday afternoons that await.
In the course of the next couple of hours – and especially as he watched film of a Panthers practice and narrated it with unsparing honesty – I was reminded of how much football Rivera really knows.
Now entering his seventh season as Carolina’s head coach, Rivera is a former NFL linebacker with an uncommon eye for detail, a consuming passion for his job and an endearing neighborliness to his personality.
That doesn’t mean Rivera is perfect. The Panthers went 6-10 last year, after all. And Rivera made his first mistake of this morning only 30 seconds after waking up.
‘How did I sleep through the alarm?’
On most days in Spartanburg, Rivera has been setting his phone alarm for 5:45 a.m. On this morning, he woke up unexpectedly, with no alarm ringing but rain rattling on the roof.
“So I looked at my phone, and I didn’t have my glasses on,” Rivera said. “I saw ‘05’ and I said, ‘Oh crap, I’ve overslept. How did I sleep through the alarm?’ I got up, got changed fast, got in my car, started driving and noticed the music was terrible.”
Rivera likes to listen to Sirius XM satellite radio in the car. He likes the Jimmy Buffett channel and the ‘80s and ‘70s music channels, but he makes sure to always have at least one button pre-programmed to today’s hits. It is something his mentor John Madden, the Super Bowl-winning head coach and award-winning TV broadcaster, told him: You need to listen to the music the players are listening to sometimes. It allows you to tune into their world a little better.
Rivera, though, could find nothing he liked on any station. Then he glanced at the car clock. It wasn’t even 5:20 a.m. yet. He had accidentally gotten up at 5:05, not 6:05, robbing himself of 40 minutes of sleep.
Already awake by now, Rivera went into his office anyway and looked over the Panthers’ heavily scripted practice schedule. There was a small pack of Skittles on his desk in case he craved sugar, but he didn’t eat it. At 6:45 a.m., Rivera went to Wofford’s weight room to get in an early morning workout.
Cam’s new routine
One of the first people he saw there? Quarterback Cam Newton.
Newton wasn’t obligated to be in there at that hour and indeed has been resting a surgically repaired shoulder for the past nine days in practice. The quarterback won’t play in Carolina’s opening exhibition game Wednesday night in Charlotte. But Newton has still been coming in almost every morning before practice for extra physical work.
“The nice thing is Cam is doing the extra conditioning stuff,” Rivera told me, “to keep himself sharp. That’s something he hasn’t done before. He’s in a very good place right now.”
Rivera and Newton exchanged pleasantries and finished their workouts. Then the coach came into his office again. He wanted to look at the film of Sunday’s two-minute drill and figure out why the first-team offense had messed it up so badly.
Angry with the offense
From his desktop computer, Rivera cued up the part of Sunday’s practice he disliked the most and played it simultaneously on the large TV screen mounted on the wall.
Sunday afternoon popped into view. Quarterback Derek Anderson was with the first-team offense as it went against the first-team defense in a no-huddle situation. Nobody could hit the quarterback and ball carriers are bear-hugged but not tackled, but otherwise this drill was as “live” as the Panthers ever get in camp.
Originally, Rivera had wanted the first-team offense to run about eight plays against the first-team defense in this fast-paced drill. Instead, he disgustedly pulled the first-team offense out of the drill early after it turned the ball over twice and committed what would have been a penalty in just three plays.
“The first group looked terrible,” Rivera said.
Now he watched it again to see why.
Rivera viewed each play from several angles, running it forward and backward to show my untrained eyes what he picked up immediately.
On the first play, Anderson threw a short pass in the flat to tight end Ed Dickson. Dickson caught the pass and tried to turn upfield but was stripped of the ball by linebacker Shaq Thompson. The fumble was recovered by the defense.
The play excited a couple of defensive coaches on the sideline, who ran onto the field to congratulate Thompson. This drew Rivera’s ire – he knows in a game that would be a 15-yard penalty on the sideline – but he reserved more of his irritation for an offense that continued to make mistakes. Right after this play, Ryan Kalil and Anderson weren’t on the same page, resulting in an early snap and what would have been another penalty.
“There’s no rhythm to this,” Rivera said angrily. “There’s no flow. ... We’re getting lazy. We turn it over. We snapped the ball on the wrong count. That’s disappointing.”
Webb improves the mood
After a nondescript running play came the second turnover. On film, Anderson dropped back and looked for Devin Funchess, running from the right on a crossing route over the middle. Instead, linebacker Luke Kuechly leaped to tip the ball, and then safety Mike Adams dove to intercept it.
While Rivera made his bones as a defensive coordinator and knew this was a heck of a defensive play, he also knows the Panthers’ offensive struggles from 2016 cannot continue into this season. The coach seemed more worried about the offense in general – concerned not only about Newton’s shoulder soreness but about the team’s depth at wide receiver.
So what went wrong on this play?
“The decision,” Rivera said, speaking of Anderson’s choice to throw the ball in tight coverage to Funchess. “Plus, watch Derek’s head as he comes out. He almost immediately looks over there (telegraphing the pass to Funchess by locking in on his targe too quickly). ... I’d liked to have seen Derek keep his eyes over here, to the left, a little longer to hold Luke in place a little longer. Also, Funchess probably broke this route off just a little soon.”
Rivera has decided he will make the offense run another two-minute drill in Monday’s practice to try this again. After Anderson’s interception, he had ordered the entire first unit out of the drill and brought in Joe Webb – normally the third-string quarterback but now playing with the second string because of Newton’s injury.
With Webb, Rivera found much to praise. On the film, Webb quickly found rookie Christian McCaffrey over the middle for a short pass that McCaffrey immediately turned into a large gain. Rivera and the other coaches are quietly delighted with McCaffrey, who has been a huge star at training camp.
Webb continued to keep completing passes – several of them against the first-string defense, which had not been dismissed from the drill. He audibled into one call that Rivera liked. And then Webb threw a gorgeous pass for a 25-yard gain to Brenton Bersin streaking down the right sideline between two Panthers defenders – a play that brought up a bad memory for Rivera.
The play that haunts Rivera
In the 2005 NFL postseason, Rivera was a defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears and a hot name whenever an NFL head job came up. His Bears were favored on Jan. 15, 2006, when they hosted Carolina in a divisional championship game.
On the second play from scrimmage, wide receiver Steve Smith was facing cornerback Charles Tillman (a future Panther himself) on the right side of the formation. Smith cut outside for what looked to be a short pass, and Tillman bit on the fake. Then Smith streaked by Tillman on the outside and caught a 58-yard touchdown pass from Jake Delhomme before Chicago’s safety could get over there to help.
Carolina led 7-0 after 55 seconds. The Panthers would end up upsetting the Bears 29-21, with Smith torching Rivera’s defense for a career-high 218 receiving yards.
It is that first TD to Smith, though, that still haunts Rivera 11 years later.
“Every time I see a guy catch the ball (deep on the right side), it reminds me of that,” Rivera said, still looking at the TV screen so he can watch Bersin’s picture-perfect route again. “The cornerback knows that if you’re going to get beat on anything, get beat to the inside so the safety has a chance to make the play. Well, Smitty beat Charles Tillman outside to the sideline, and Mike Brown (a Bears safety at the time) never had a chance.
“Same thing here. Watch how much ground Colin Jones (the Panthers’ second-string safety) covers. It’s about 26.5 yards, and look how close he gets. So I think if Teddy (Williams, the Panthers cornerback) had pushed Bersin inside, closer to the numbers, Colin has a chance to make the play. Unfortunately, every time I see that, I flash back to the Smitty play. You don’t ever forget ones like those.”
‘The intent is to win it all’
While Rivera loves his players, it is tough love. This was evident from the very first day he met with a full Panthers team in 2011 as a rookie head coach. During that meeting, he borrowed a line from his old NFL coach with the Bears, Mike Ditka.
“Look, I’ve got good news and bad news,” Rivera said he told that 2011 team. “The good news is we’re going to go to the Super Bowl. The bad news is not everyone in this room is going to be here.”
That was true on both counts. It took Carolina until Rivera’s fifth season, in 2015, to make the Super Bowl but lose to Denver. Then came last year’s season-long stumble, which Rivera described as a “very humbling experience” for both himself and the team.
The coach talked to a number of the people he considers friends or mentors in the offseason about what he might change – a lieutenant colonel; Madden; former baseball manager Tony La Russa; and NBA legend Jerry West.
“I was trying to get an understanding of how we get back to where we want to be,” Rivera said. “To a person, they all said to me that you’ve got to make sure everyone understands your vision.”
So Rivera crystallized it for everyone in this camp’s first meeting, in which he told the players several times, pausing for emphasis: “The intent is to …Win … It ... All.”
I asked him why he said it so plainly. “Maybe it is lofty,” Rivera said, “but I don’t care. Honestly, I’ve got nothing to lose.”
I respond that the coach he actually does have a lot to lose – his job. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson suddenly fired general manager Dave Gettleman with a week to go before the regular season. Rivera’s career in Charlotte might not survive another 6-10 season. Doesn’t that give him pause?
“You can’t think that way,” Rivera said. “And that’s one of things that Mr. Richardson has been really good with me. He’s told me, ‘I’ll make no decisions until after the season.’ He’s always been great that way.… So you can relax, do your job and do the best you can.”
With that, Rivera got up. It was practice time.