I think I’ve always liked the humanity of Ron Rivera, back to the time the night before a Bears-Packers game in Wisconsin, Rivera and two Bear defensive mates agreed to have dinner with me to talk about their team and the game. Dinner, on the night before the game in Appleton, Wisc., lasted two hours. A few highlights from my conversation this week with the fired Carolina coach:
• Speaking of the human side, he started by telling me his Golden Retriever demolished the stuffed Panthers mascot, Sir Purr, the day he got fired by owner David Tepper. “For whatever reason, we have a Sir Purr stuffed animal that Tahoe tore up,” Rivera said, laughing. “I kid you not. I walked outside, there’s all the stuffing. I saw the head of Sir Purr on one side, the body on the other and I said, ‘What the heck?’ Tahoe would not have been imitating his master, because Rivera is not bitter at the team or Tepper.
• “I’m doing good,” he said. “I give Mr. Tepper credit for explaining why he did it and why he was doing it now—wanting to get started on the process and knowing he was going to make a change. He was very forthright. If owners explained it to coaches that way, I think people can go away with their head up. That’s how I felt. At the same time, he didn’t want me dangling in the wind, with it being reported every week that ‘He’s on the hot seat.’ … When you’re in this league long enough and you see things, I’d much rather go out with my head up and my dignity intact. The ego in me says give me that one more season. I got one more year left on my contract. Give me that year. And then there’s a certain point where you say, you know what? Let’s move on.”
Regarding Cam Newton, I wondered if it would be hard for either the Panthers to commit $21 million to him next year, not knowing exactly where he’d be physically, or whether Rivera would want to take Newton with him if he got another NFL job. I said I didn’t know how to resolve the Newton issue because I didn’t know what kind of player Newton would be in 2020, and how healthy he’d be. “Nobody does,” Rivera said. “When you look at our team analytically, when Cam was Cam, for seven years, we were the number one goal-line offense. We were the number one fourth-and-one team. Because we had this guy who had this specific skill set. I just believe that if he gets healthy with some of the things that he’s done, he can be pretty impactful. But as you said, he’s property of the Panthers and he’s got a big number.”
• I asked him the lessons he’d learned in nine seasons as a head coach. “The first thing is understanding what it takes to get the team on the rise. Then I think I understand a little bit better just how important it is to make sure the picks that you have, the core players you have, that you are able to get those guys taken care of, keeping those guys. At the same time, knowing—I’ve tried to pay attention to what Bill Belichick has done, and how to slowly transition guys out and transition guys into being the new core guys. That’s what he’s done tremendously well. Something else I just got from watching him. I don’t know if a lot of people are talking about this, but the style of defensive player you need today, in my opinion, has changed. I got that based on what I saw him do last year in the playoffs. He put guys on the field that could chase Patrick Mahomes, then to stop the Rams from running. So looking for these big bulky defensive end-type players is no longer relevant. What you’re looking for is you’re looking for the Brian Burnses of the world. I just thought he did some really amazing things. You have to find the sideline-to-sideline guys who can play every down.”
“Will you be choosy in your next job?” I asked.
“If I take this job, it’s because I believe I can win. I do. We gotta wait and see what’s available and who’s out there and if anybody’s interested, but to me, if you take a job and you’re not convinced you can win, what are you taking the job for? So for me, I’m gonna look at obviously the ownership, the front office, the management, the support. And then of course, the players. I am one of those who believes that God does have a plan. Whatever that plan, wherever that plan takes me, that’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna do it with all my heart.”