Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera really wanted to buy a painting last week in Atlanta.
He met with the artist, Steve Penley, at Penley’s gallery as Super Bowl festivities swallowed the city. Penley’s style features re-imaginings of the portraits of famous historic figures under swaths of vivid rainbow colors in broad brush strokes. The one Rivera wanted incorporated the bust from a well-known 1940s photo of Winston Churchill, easily as tall as Rivera himself and about 10 feet long, covered in bright streaks of color.
Rivera loves Churchill. He’s read countless articles, biographies and novels about the former British Prime Minister. In fact, there aren’t many things “Churchill” Rivera hasn’t come across over the years.
But this particular painting was different than anything he had seen. And it perhaps resonated so much with Rivera because it resembled a balance he is trying to find between two concepts as he enters his ninth NFL season: The familiar and the innovative.
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Rivera has taken time to evaluate each of his coaches this offseason. They went over every call and every play on both offense and defense, trying to find out what went so very wrong during the Panthers’ seven-game losing streak in 2018.
But Rivera also conducted his own self-evaluation with the help of his wife, Stephanie, over the past month.
And he kept returning to one big question.
How can Rivera stay true to the philosophies that got him where he is today, and still evolve?
Rivera’s period of introspection, which he calls a “self-scout,” was still in progress when he sat down with the Observer over breakfast in Atlanta before Super Bowl LIII. He’s re-evaluating the season, sure, but also who he is as a coach.
“It’s as torturous as it gets,” he said, exhaling sharply.
There are some hard truths in a season that started 6-2, and ended 7-9. Rivera remains frustrated that he saw symptoms of the wheels falling off in a blowout in Pittsburgh, but he was too slow to make the correct diagnosis because narrow losses the next two weeks, each essentially decided by one or two plays, clouded his vision.
“The biggest mistake, the biggest realization, I wish had come (earlier),” he said. “But we were playing well. We were winning. It’s not like we were getting blown out, other than in Pittsburgh.
“I missed it. That’s why I missed it. If, after Pittsburgh, Detroit had been a 17-point blowout, now all of the sudden the bells and whistles are going off.”
Some of the problems were rooted in coordinator and assistant turnover.
Defensive coordinator Eric Washington was in his first year, with each of his assistants also in their first season, and there were clashes of methodology.
Washington had coached the Panthers’ defensive line for eight years, and the identity he had established with that group contrasted with the style of defensive line coach Brady Hoke. (Hoke and cornerbacks coach Jeff Imamura were fired after Week 13.)
With some defensive assistants and coordinators on different pages, the differences in fundamentals between veteran defensive players and rookies looked all the more gaping at times. And overall defensive speed suffered.
Rivera saw all of that, but said he intervened too late.
“There are some things that I have to look at and be honest with myself about,” he said, “and a lot of it starts with me.”
He also said he lost sight of a bit of advice once given to him over 20 years ago by former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson.
“Stick to what you know, and do it,” he recounted. “Somewhere along the line last year, I kind of got away from what I believed. You do the same thing for eight years, and you get in that comfort zone, ‘This is what we do and this is how we do it.”
Rivera said he and Stephanie had a blunt conversation about how to correct that.
“I have to evolve, I have to change,” Rivera said. “This team has to evolve, this team has to change. ... I’ve got to step up. I’ve got to set the standard.”
Rivera’s methodology for moving his team forward is starting to unfold.
In some ways, he’s leaning on his foundation — Johnson’s advice of sticking to what he knows. For one, he will call the defensive plays in 2019.
He took over that role in Week 13 of the 2018 season, a throwback of sorts from his time as a defensive coordinator in Chicago and San Diego.
But Rivera’s motivation isn’t just about his comfort zone. Calling plays actually pushes him to seek answers for weekly problems presented by other teams, and to innovate.
So far, that innovation is taking the form of a defense that will will likely be much more multiple than in past years. Rivera wants to marry as many 3-4 and 4-3 defensive concepts as possible, depending on the matchup.
This reflects Rivera’s body of work in Chicago, where he ran a 4-3, and in San Diego, where he ran a 3-4.
But it also puts the Panthers in better position to counter a wide variety of offensive looks and throw more wrinkles in opponents’ paths.
“If you play a 30-front (and) a 40-front, guess what everybody has to prepare for?” he said. “Both. Not just the same thing over and over and over.”
The move also means the Panthers have already had to make tough roster decisions — such as not extending veteran linebacker Thomas Davis. More are on the way.
Carolina’s young players will have to develop, combined with an infusion of fresh legs and speed brought in via free agency and the draft.
A more multiple defense also adds to the learning curve for Panthers assistants. To help them grow, Rivera has reached backward again, in order to move forward.
He hired longtime NFL defensive assistant Perry Fewell to coach the secondary. Fewell will also be a defensive resource for all on staff — something Fewell has done for Rivera before.
Back in 2004, Rivera was the defensive coordinator in Chicago and struggling to pick up how the linebackers and secondary were supposed to gel in certain coverages. So he asked Fewell, who was the Bears’ secondary coach at the time, for help.
“And he gave me the rest of my education as far as the defense was concerned,” Rivera said.
Rivera will also keep close in 2019 a lesson he learned in the early days of his head coaching career from a meeting with Hall of Fame coach John Madden. At the time, Rivera had lost 19 games in his first two seasons as Carolina’s head coach, and began the 2013 season 0-3.
“I was flying by the seat of my pants,” Rivera said, adding that in his inexperience, he leaned too much on what he had seen others do rather than his own instincts.
Madden asked Rivera to note all of the failed plays from those losses. Then he asked why Rivera made the calls he did.
“I went by the book,” Rivera told Madden.
“What book? There is no book,” Madden replied.
From there, Rivera began pushing himself out of his comfort zone. He trusted his instincts more often, and became less conservative. Carolina went to a Super Bowl two seasons later.
Now, his instincts are telling him it’s time to go out of his comfort zone again.
“Either we evolve,” Rivera said, “or we go extinct.”
There was positive momentum, in Rivera’s mind, before the 2018 season ended.
Rivera said he felt like he had found a rhythm again in Week 15 against New Orleans, and felt it across the entire defense. Despite being a loss, that game was one of Carolina’s best defensive performances all season.
Against Sean Payton’s offense, Rivera felt “it” so much he even called one coverage three times in a row.
The coverage, though known by a different name in Carolina, was the same “83-adjust” that was one of Rivera’s stalwarts when he was coaching in Chicago and in San Diego.
“I just kept going back in my mind, “That’s like ’83-adjust!’ and I just stuck with it,” he laughed.
The calls forced a Saints three-and-out, and Rivera felt like he was back.
“Things just started to click,” he said. “That’s the thing I started to feel again in those last three games, was that roll, that feel that you get.”
Rivera moved forward by reaching back to the familiar.
But now, it’s about staying in that rhythm without being blinded by complacency — to find a balance between the innovation that pushes him forward and the lessons that built his own foundation.
Like splashes of rainbow paint across a portrait of Churchill.