Ron Rivera is aware of how pressure can build and destroy. Pressure is a key tenant of the 46 Defense he had tattooed into his cranium as a young linebacker on Buddy Ryan’s ’85 Bears defense. Its bewildering blitz disguises ravaged the psyches of opposing quarterbacks, which was more effective than temporarily bruising their bodies.
Pressure also forced Rivera to change for the better as a coach. This time last year, Rivera was sweating out Black Monday like he left his first perm relaxer in too long.
Six games into his second season as an NFL head coach, Rivera’s tenure was facing its denouement. After getting passed over for eight different coaching jobs in six years, Rivera’s cord was about to get snipped before he’d even coached through half of his modest four-year, $11.2 million contract.
NFL coaches get paid such premium rates because their acumen and tireless work ethics are considered to be among the upper echelon of those in their profession.
Only 33 head coaches (one for each franchise and Jerry Jones) operate on that elite level at one time. Those who flame out quickly rarely get a second chance. Especially ones who’d already been turned down for a quarter of the league’s jobs while their coordinator stock was booming.
The Rooney Rule wasn’t enacted just to benefit black coaches. The number of Latinos holding down head coaching jobs in league history is an exclusive group that includes just Tom Flores and Rivera.
Minority head coaches begin their careers on third and long compared to their Caucasian counterparts such as Norv Turner and Chan Gailey who start on first down and are often given a fifth down despite dismal results.
Being a minority defensive coordinator in a league which enables offenses through rule changes, by creating further incentives for franchises to lock up offensive coordinators is even tougher.
In his third season as Chicago Bears defensive coordinator, the Bears advanced to the Super Bowl with Rex Grossman playing Russian Roulette at quarterback. A few months later, Turner and Rivera both interviewed for the Chargers vacant head coaching job.
The Chargers opted to hire Droopy Dog Turner, universally recognized as the least inspirational coach in NFL history, as their head coach though he’d qualified for the postseason once in nine previous seasons in Washington and Oakland.
At his introductory press conference two years ago, following his ninth interview in six years, Rivera promised to bring a balanced offense to Carolina. The fans who'd been anticipating the over caffeinated Jim Harbaugh taking the job were rocked to sleep.
In October of 2012, the Panthers relieved general manager Marty Hurney of his duties after 10 years at the helm. A breath of fresh air may have been needed, but he was also responsible for hiring Rivera. Both Hurney and Rivera came to Carolina from San Diego—albeit a decade apart.
The Panthers had all the ammunition they needed to fire Rivera. Harbaugh was about to play in his second consecutive NFC Championship while the Panthers couldn't escape the starter gates. Chip Kelly, Oregon's revolutionary offensive chemist who had vacillated on the Tampa Bay job a year earlier seemed poised to complete the NFL leap.
The knock on John Fox during his final years in Carolina was that his offense had become blander than an orthopedic shoe store. Ron Rivera has been branded with the same iron. Rivera’s timeline was being sped up because of two additional factors.
One was Kelly’s dalliance with the NFL. The other involved Cam Newton’s arrested development. He’d been entrusted with an athlete uniquely designed to play quarterback in the 21st century and handcuffed him to an unimaginative offense.
Following a Saturday morning meeting in the shadow of their 7-9 record, owner Jerry Richardson invested in Rivera winning five of his final six games by staving his execution.
Kelly likely would have transformed Newton into a gun slinging signal caller with no regard for human life, time of possession or for conservancy. Instead, Rivera got the quarterback with enough confidence and swag to make Jim McMahon jealous to holster his cannon, make the correct check down throws.
This season, the Eagles had possession of the football for a shorter period of time than any other team in the league. The Panthers held it longer than all but three teams in the league.
Kelly’s up-tempo, no-huddle offense puts pressure on opposing defenses. Rivera’s taken up a vigilante alter ego as Riverboat Ron. His archenemy is the philosophy, which suggests punting on fourth down is always the best policy. Since kicking a field goal on 4th & 1 from Buffalo’s 21 instead of going for the game-sealing win in the final 1:42 of an eventual loss to the Bills, Riverboat Ron has been rolling the dice on fourth downs.
Up to that point, Rivera had attempted fewer fourth down conversions than any coach besides John Fox in Denver since 2011.
His fourth and short conversion aversion was a metaphor for his career fourth down and 2-14 record in games decided by seven points or fewer.
From the Bills game forward, Carolina's I'll coaching staff stopped viewing 4th and short situations as obstacles and they became opportunities to highlight four down personnel or creativity.
He’ll never oversee an offense equally exotic as the ones in Philly or New Orleans, but Rivera's embrace of YOLO offensive play calling was out of necessity and has ultimately succeeded.
Rivera identifies as a child of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage, however, first and foremost Rivera is spawn of Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan. Rex and Rob weren’t Buddy’s only NFL sons. The apple doesn’t fall far from the coaching tree and like his fiery former coaches, Rivera’s defense gets its protein from filleting finesse offenses, then feasts on their bones courtesy of a ball-control offense.
Rivera took one X&O chromosome from each. It just took him a little while for his inner Ditka sans thick, bristly mustache to emerge.
“Ready, Fire, Aim,” was how former Bears general manager Jim Finks once described Ditka’s thought process. Backup Bears quarterback Bob Avellini told Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football author Rich Cohen that Iron Mike “called plays like a drunken fan.” You know the type? They gulp a few beers, cup their hands together and then implore the coach to “Gooo fawww iiitt!!!” as if he can hear them bellowing.
I’m not even sure Rivera’s sudden evolution was purposeful. Involuntary Darwinism is more like it. If Rivera was going to survive in Carolina, he’d need to call plays like a drunken fan every once in a while.
This season, the Panthers were third in behind Denver and San Diego in fourth down conversion efficiency, converting 10 of 13 fourth downs along the way. He's not just keeping the special teams unit off when they're behind late in the fourth. For Riverboat Ron, it doesn't matter if the game is scoreless or if they hold the lead. If the opportunity presents itself he's pulling the trigger.
At a time when most defenses are setting the edge rather than rushing it to keep zone read option quarterbacks in the pocket rather than send their pass rushers careening around the corner in overpursuit, the Panthers have gambled on pressuring quarterbacks better than any team in the league.
On Sunday, Rivera kept Matt Ryan off balance by routinely knocking him off his feet en route to compiling a franchise record nine sacks out of their league-leading 60 sacks. Just for reference, the '85 Bears reeled in 62.
The Panthers have a multitude of weapons at their disposal to attack with. There’s always the usual suspects Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson keeping quarterbacks heads on a swivel instead of downfield. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis can play safety or creep up near the line of scrimmage as a helping hand.
Rookie defensive tackle Star Loutelei plants the dynamite in the middle to blow up offensive plays the quickest way possible.
Peep Lotulelei using his power and leverage to overpower Tampa Bay’s 6-9, 315 pound offensive lineman Demar Dotson as if he’d jumped him in an alley — or during a victory formation.
Hall of Famer Mike Singletary was the straw that stirred the drinks in the middle of Ryan's 46 defense. Second-year MIKE linebacker Luke Kuechly has become that guy in Carolina, lassoing ball carriers around the line of scrimmage and using his athleticism to blanket tight ends in pass coverage. He'll be probably be the line of defense responsible for tracking Jimmy Graham or Lesean McCoy in two weeks.
If Kelly’s Eagles vanquish the Saints equally potent offense (although their offensive GPS flips out when they hit the road) on Saturday, the Eagles will travel to Carolina with a trip to the NFC Championship Game on the line.
One year after nearly saying his goodbye to Carolina on Black Monday, Rivera is looking forward to a first round bye week. In the meantime, his Panthers will be prepping for a possible visit from the head coach many in the Queen City envisioned replacing him 12 months ago.