Carolina Panthers

Biggest task for Ron Rivera, Panthers in 2018? Adding honey to an oatmeal offense

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera says continuity is the key to a successful defense in 2018.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera says continuity is the key to a successful defense in 2018. AP

Ron Rivera is the type of man who, when presented at a breakfast with free platters of crispy bacon, assorted pastries and fluffy miniature waffles, chooses the oatmeal.

There is nothing wrong with oatmeal, of course. It provides energy. It's consistent. You can dress it up with various sugars, jellies and fruits, but it's still, well, oatmeal.

But with oatmeal, you always know what you're getting.

I considered this as Rivera, sitting at a table with reporters at the annual coaches' breakfast in Orlando this week, unscrewed a small jar of honey and drizzled it in a spiral over his bowl.

Rivera is known for his consistency.

Some in the fan base will tell you he has not had back-to-back winning seasons as a head coach (a dazzling, nearly-undefeated season and Super Bowl run is usually forgotten, in that logic).

The public relations staff will remind you he's been to the playoffs four times in five seasons (his first two years as a head coach are forgotten, in that logic).

Sometimes he goes for it on fourth down. Sometimes he'll punt on fourth-and-5 on the Saints' 35.

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Averaging these truths leaves Rivera somewhere in the middle.

And importantly, he provides structure in a time when the organization is in flux, with new ownership likely coming within a few weeks.

Stability is a facet of his personality, and a valuable one. But when the game itself is evolving more rapidly than ever, he needs to be innovative, too.

Rivera follows the patterns closely. He sees how the trickle-up of collegiate offenses has put a premium on versatile athletes on both sides of the ball. He sees tight ends who are far less comfortable with their hand in the dirt than they are at high-pointing a pass. He sees defensive ends who look like outside linebackers, and inside linebackers who look like safeties. He sees how the spread's growing popularity in college has narrowed the pool of young, NFL-ready offensive linemen.

"The league is evolving a little bit because of the guys who are coming out," he said.

And whoever runs Rivera's offense must constantly adjust, borrowing from college and NFL systems alike.

A course set by Cam

When the Panthers drafted quarterback Cam Newton first overall in 2011, Rivera and his staff set the course for the franchise for several years. Because Newton was a talent unlike any they had ever seen, they had to commit to a different offense than any they had run before.

Then-coordinator Rob Chudzinski, a disciple of Norv Turner, installed Turner's offense with a twist built specifically for Newton: The read-option concepts in which Newton was so successful running at Auburn.

It was groundbreaking in the NFL at the time, and the flashiest move of Rivera's career. Three years later, with Mike Shula as offensive coordinator calling a similar version of Chudzinski's offense, Newton and the Panthers ran away from the league.

But then, they stalled.

Wiser defenses

After the Panthers' aching Super Bowl loss, Rivera saw during the 6-10 "hangover" season in 2016 that defenses were getting wise to how Carolina did things. He countered with Christian McCaffrey, one of the most modern and versatile players available in the 2017 draft.

During an 11-5 season followed by a wild-card playoff exit in 2017, Rivera's offense might not have changed enough as the rest of the league caught up.

He also had a quarterback who hadn't stayed in his MVP season form of 2015 despite having all of the physical ability to do so, and who was about to hit his prime years.

So Rivera fired Shula.

"I think my concern more so than anything else was finding another way to do things," Rivera said. "Finding a way to help Cam get to the next level. I thought we did a lot of good things with Mike. ... I mean, we went to the Super Bowl with him as our offensive coordinator.

"But I just think that Cam needed something different. Something extra."

A new, old answer

To find it, Rivera believed he had to turn to an offensive coordinator who offered a different perspective, though that didn't necessarily mean a new one.

The creator of the successful system Chudzinski implemented, from which Shula borrowed, was Turner.

Turner's success in maximizing the ability of dynamic players and of quarterbacks is well-documented. His concepts were once transformative to the league. And Rivera did not want to start from scratch, with a contract extended through 2020 and a veteran roster.

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"Norv ... believes that this transition will be fairly seamless, for the most part," Rivera said. "There is enough familiarity, enough similarities in the things that we do for the players to continue to just keep running with it. I don't expect us to struggle in terms of picking things up and developing them. I think we should be able to pick it up, and hopefully continue to trend up."

Hiring Turner seems to be Rivera's attempt to find the balance between innovation and continuity. Rivera will depend on Turner to sweeten something that is already stable.

Kind of like putting honey on his oatmeal.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071; @jourdanrodrigue
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