As Ron Rivera goes, so do the Panthers.
That’s been the case since he took over as head coach in 2011. Since then, the Panthers have experienced the gauntlet of what the NFL has to offer — everything from a Super Bowl appearance to last year’s seven-game losing streak.
Rivera now heads into his ninth season at the helm, where he’s almost certain to cement himself in Panthers history. Rivera has 71 wins with the team, second-most in franchise history, behind only John Fox’s 73.
Three wins would make him the Panthers’ all-time winningest coach.
Rivera spoke one-on-one with the Observer in the final days of training camp, on everything from his personal motivation to standout performers of the summer. And, like everything else Panther-related, there’s no going anywhere without first discussing quarterback Cam Newton.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity:
Q. We’ve got start with Cam. It seems like he has shown an extra level of maturity this year — have you seen that, and how welcome is that from him?
A. I have, and it is. I see some real good leadership stuff from him. And it’s funny, sometimes when certain guys leave, you get more of an opportunity (to show that).
I think with Cam right now, the biggest thing that’s happened is just the fact that Ryan Kalil’s not here. I mean, Ryan has been such a strong voice for so many years.
I think Cam really feels it’s his time to do that, and he’s done a great job with it.
Q. Is that different than he felt before?
A. No, but now he’s taken an even bigger role, and that’s probably the biggest thing he’s had to do.
Q. For all the great running backs you’ve been around — LaDainian Tomlinson and Walter Payton, to name two — who does Christian McCaffrey remind you of?
A. LT’s a good comparison. It really is. LT was such a strong runner and such a great threat out of the backfield, and you see that with Christian. So that’s really kind of cool to watch.
He does (keep challenging himself). He wants to get better every opportunity he can.
Q. Is there anything specifically you’re looking for him to improve on?
A. Really just continue to grow. I mean, he just seems to get better and better, stronger and stronger. So really it’s just about continuing to grow.
Q. Does Curtis Samuel have a ceiling?
A. No. I think Curtis, DJ Moore, I think those guys don’t have ceilings. I think those guys can become really, really good players. I’m excited to watch them keep developing.
Q. Have you ever seen a player take a single-year leap like Curtis has?
A. Not like that. I mean, from what he’s done from his rookie year to last year to this summer ... (laughs) it’s been a lot of fun to watch.
Q. With that said, who has been the biggest surprise to you in training camp? Is there any specific player, or is it more of a scheme thing?
A. I think it’s just been the defense and the way they’ve adapted. The way we’ll do things on defense, with the transition (to more 3-4 defensive schemes), that’s been very pleasant to watch. It really has.
I just think as a whole, there’s a lot of good things going on right now.
Q. You had mentioned earlier in camp that you’ve had the chance to spend more time coaching defense specifically. Has that personally re-invigorated you?
A. Not necessarily. I’m just having fun. I enjoy what I do, whether I’m in those meetings or not, or calling the defenses, or doing any of those things. I just enjoy what I do.
It’s been fun. It’s been really good.
Q. It’s been about a year since David Tepper took over as owner. Is there anything in particular that’s been the biggest asset so far in having him around or what he’s able to do?
A. Well, just in talking with him and seeing the way he does things differently, and his perspective and the way he sees things, I think that’s been kind of cool.
He’s got a different kind of picture — and it is a big picture. That’s been kind of a neat thing to see.
Q. What sort of role do you have in that picture?
A. We talk. (laughs) I have a lot of creative liberty, which I really appreciate. And it’s one of those things where it kind of carries over. It’s a lot about our discussions and talking with him and stuff like that.
Q. Brian Burns tweaked his ankle (a few days ago), but he already was so impressive in limited time in the preseason. Has he exceeded your expectations?
A. I think he’s adapted to what we do a lot quicker than I expected, and that’s been really cool to watch.
There’s a lot to learn, and he seems to be handling that very well (as far as picking up the scheme and physically).
Q. Obviously last year was last year, and things didn’t end the way you would have liked. Having not made the playoffs a year ago, do you put any additional pressure on yourself?
A. No — it’s football. There’s pressure every time.
It doesn’t matter if it’s one year, two years, three years. There’s pressure, and that’s just the way life is in the NFL.
Q. Is there any question you hate being asked that you keep getting?
A. Yeah, that (last) one.
Because to me, I tell the guys the same thing. I don’t worry about things. I don’t worry about things I don’t control, so I just keep trying to go with the flow.