They came to Carolina together in 2011, the charismatic quarterback and the coach who had gotten his first head job by building great NFL defenses.
Cam Newton and Ron Rivera have been linked since. Rivera started Newton from Day One, and together they have won 30 regular-season games. After Sunday’s 34-3 pasting of the Atlanta Falcons, they also can say they have won the NFC South in back-to-back seasons – the first team in the division to do that.
What the coach and the quarterback haven’t done together, however, is win a single playoff game. They have a great chance to change that at 4:35 p.m. Saturday, when Carolina hosts an injury-plagued but still dangerous Arizona team in sold-out Bank of America Stadium.
Rivera understands that an asterisk will accompany any achievements until he and Newton have some success in January. That starts with this task: Win one game in the postseason.
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“Until we can do that, I think there’s always going to be the doubters that say, ‘Well, you can only get them that far as a coach,’ ” Rivera said Monday. “Or, ‘He (Newton) can only get them that far as a quarterback.’ … I want to dispel that. Not just for me, but for the team.”
New England has set the gold standard for a coach-quarterback postseason duo, as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have combined for an NFL-record 18 playoff wins together and seem poised for more.
Carolina, on the other hand, hasn’t won any sort of playoff game since the 2005 season. That was back when John Fox and Jake Delhomme were a duo in Charlotte – those two combined for five postseason victories together with the Panthers.
Rivera and Newton, despite the back-to-back NFC South titles in 2013 and 2014, have been a study in mediocrity in terms of overall record.
Rivera is 32-31-1 in four years as Carolina’s coach. Newton is 30-31-1 as a starter, with the difference in record the two games Newton missed this season because of injury. Derek Anderson quarterbacked the Panthers to wins over Tampa Bay in both of those.
Newton can win, of course. He won a national championship and the Heisman Trophy in his lone season at Auburn. And he is a phenomenal athlete who scares all defensive coordinators because he can run, too. Of Newton’s 51 rushing yards Sunday, 43 came after contact according to Pro Football Focus.
Newton also is getting better at reading defenses. Newton recognized a blitz coming from the Falcons in the first quarter Sunday before the snap. He audibled from a run to a pass and hit tight end Ed Dickson for the game’s first touchdown.
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula said Monday that Newton is playing at a “high level” and that the quarterback has a “presence” on the field. After battling injuries to his ribs, ankle and back this season, Newton also should be as healthy as he has been all season against the Cardinals (which still isn’t 100 percent, but at least is closer).
In last season’s home playoff game against San Francisco, Newton wasn’t good enough in a 23-10 loss. He did throw for 267 yards and a touchdown but also threw two interceptions and was sacked five times.
“He made plays, but he missed plays,” Rivera said of Newton’s performance in that game. “We made plays, and we missed plays. It just wasn’t him. There were some opportunities we had as far as making catches, making throws, making blocks, making tackles.”
Rivera wasn’t on his game that day, either. He admits he “lost focus for almost a quarter” early as he kept berating the officials for what he felt were bad calls. Rivera said his team then caught his “negative energy” and things spiraled downhill. It also didn’t help that the 49ers were ultimately the more talented team.
If Carolina wins Saturday, it will advance only to the playoff round that last season’s team also achieved because of its first-round bye.
But there will be a symbolic difference, because Rivera and Newton and the rest of the team will have won a playoff game. There will be less chance of Newton being compared to Andy Dalton (0-3 in the playoffs) or Rivera to former Atlanta coach Mike Smith (whose 1-4 postseason record was part of the reason Smith was fired Monday).
Rivera – who lost a Super Bowl as a defensive coordinator, won a Super Bowl as a player and was the AP’s NFL Coach of the Year a season ago – knows that there will be a hole in his resume until he wins his first playoff game as a head coach.
“I don’t want to be the guy that can only get them that far,” Rivera said. “I’d love to see us obviously go all the way. But we’ve got to take it one game at a time. And the next step, obviously, would be to win a playoff game.”