CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The 2016 season was a trying year for the Carolina Panthers.
Fresh off the franchise's second Super Bowl appearance and an MVP season from quarterback Cam Newton, it looked like the Panthers could be the first team to shake off the Super Bowl sting and claim the organization's first ever Lombardi Trophy.
But amid major offseason personnel changes and a sluggish start, Ron Rivera found his team in a hole they couldn't escape from, even with Superman under center. Rivera sat down with NBC Charlotte's Kelsey Riggs to reflect on last season's struggles, some important personal decisions, and to preview the upcoming season.
Disappointment in Denver
“You are what your record says you are.”
The phrase, which is widely credited for former NFL coach Bill Parcells, is meant to signify that regardless of a team’s injuries, bad luck, or overall skill, its reputation lies solely with the number of games won and lost.
But for the 2016 Carolina Panthers, 0-1 might as well have been 0-16. Coming off a heartbreaking loss in Super Bowl 50, Rivera’s team had a golden opportunity to get revenge on opening night against the Denver Broncos.
“I think the hard part was, the expectations going into that season were so high,” Rivera said. “I know a lot of people criticized me for it, but I believe that starting the season the way we did — opening up the season with Denver — after having gone through the Super Bowl in 2015 was a very difficult task. The problem with that, in my opinion, again, this hasn’t happened in the NFL in 48 years, is that when you rematch the way you did, the losers have to live with it until you play them again.
“I dealt with that question every day, every time I came across the media, every time I came across a sports fan. ‘Oh yeah, you got Denver, are you going to beat them this time? Revenge?’ I had to live that every day. Our players had to. That was pretty difficult.”
After losing a 10-point lead in the second half, the Panthers found themselves with another chance to seize victory. With time winding down, they set up for a 50-yard field goal that would clinch the win. But Graham Gano’s kick went wide, handing Carolina a crushing defeat as they attempted to rebound from the dreaded Super Bowl hangover. Rivera says that game dictated his team’s entire season.
“And not necessarily the one kick, but the other 130 plays in the game,” Rivera said. “Any of those plays go differently, it could have been a different season. I don’t know as much if you can call it a hangover just as much certain things happening in the year for us.”
A dismal 1-5 start led to the Panthers finishing 6-10, the worst mark for the Panthers since Rivera’s first year in 2011.
Moving on with help from John Madden
It took quite some time for Rivera to get over the disappointment that was last season. He said it wasn’t until after the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl that it was “truly time to move on,” giving Rivera the opportunity to close the book on the letdown.
Rivera holds himself accountable for changes that were made within the team that got away from past successes.
“We changed a lot of things that we were going to do going forward to emulate more of what we had done in the past,” Rivera said. “I think I may have gotten ahead of myself and that falls on me. I went back and looked at the things we did in 2015, 2014, and 2013, and we’re going to try and get back to a lot of those things.”
Among them? Reaching out to Hall of Fame coach and mentor John Madden. Madden, who won Super Bowl XI as head coach of the Oakland Raiders, has been a friend and confidant of Rivera’s for over 30 years. Rivera, whose father Eugenio was drafted into the Army in 1952, also credits military officers for their counsel.
“The one constant has always been Coach Madden. We talked for three-, three-and-a-half hours,” Rivera said. “We discussed things all over, just trying to figure things out for me personally, and just trying to put my head back into place.
“I’ve worked with some military folks, some officers that I’ve talked with and leaders, just really trying to figure out where I need to go from here to help our football team be the best that it can be.”
Reconnecting with his Puerto Rican roots
As a Father’s Day present to his dad, Rivera says he took his family to visit relatives in Puerto Rico this summer. Not having visited his Puerto Rico family in about 20 years, Rivera said the visit really let him connect with long lost friends and relatives.
“It was really special because I have several cousins that are my age that I remember way back when we used to go every year and visit with them and it was awesome,” Rivera said. “It really kind of brings you back to your roots because my dad’s family actually owns the land that they farmed when they were all growing up. They’ve all built homes around it, except for my father, obviously being in California.
“So, it’s a reminder for myself, and it was kind of neat to watch my nephew, that this is where we came from. This is where it all started.”
Rivera also learned that the Panthers are pretty popular among Puerto Rican football fans, led by his cousin, Jose, better known as “Pepo.” Pepo was the only other person in Rivera’s family to play American football, and as you might expect, an avid Panthers fan.“When we went to the Super Bowl and they wanted to do a piece on my family, he was pretty much the spokesperson,” explained Rivera. “Boy, we had a lot of visitors from the outside that came in. It was kind of cool because it was really neat to see people that don’t really know the game want to learn about the game.”The curious case of Cam Newton & roster managementSince being named Panthers head coach on January 11, 2011, Rivera’s legacy as coach has been tied to Cam Newton. The polarizing quarterback, who set the NFL record book on fire during a marvelous rookie campaign before breaking through in 2015 as NFL MVP, is criticized for his emotional showcases.Rivera thinks it’s simply a matter of people not taking the time to know Cam and to understand who he really is as a person.“They see one image, those first impressions, and people automatically assume,” Rivera said. “I think you can’t do that with a young man like him. You have to dig a little bit, understand who he is and then watch him.“He’s got his own personality, his own type of character, but at the same time, he’s got a good heart. I wish people could understand the pulses and positives instead of, ‘Oh, he’s too fancy. He does too many of these types of things.’ That’s who he is and I feel bad that people didn’t want to take the time.”Earlier this month, the Panthers relieved general manager Dave Gettleman of his duties. Before Gettleman's dismissal, Rivera sad it’s important to handle veteran players with care, particularly in the case of fan favorites Thomas Davis and Greg Olsen.“Greg has obviously been a tremendous football player for years and every year he seems to do something special and that’s not just because of who he is as a football player, but more so he’s a tremendous person and a good fit for our locker room,” Rivera said.Davis, who has spent his entire career with Carolina since being drafted in 2005, was also categorized as a dynamic player and terrific person by Rivera. He’s hopeful that both players’ contracts will be handled to maintain team chemistry.“You want to make sure those guys get to stay around,” he said. “So, I know our guys in our front office are looking at how we take care of certain situations and hopefully we can get that done.”Growing through golfYou often hear about athletes taking up another sport or activity to hone their craft by putting their bodies through a new challenge. For Rivera, golf has taken on an important role, particularly when it comes to clearing his head.Leaning on wife Stephanie, who is a former WNBA assistant coach, Rivera is able to talk not just to his wife, but a fellow coach.“Stephanie and I play a lot of golf together and it really is our chance just to be a couple,” said Rivera. “One of the benefits of having a wife who was a former professional basketball coach in the WNBA is we talk a lot. We talk about attitudes and philosophies and ideas, and she sees a lot.”The couple played at a number of golf courses on the West Coast this summer, finishing the season with a cause that’s near and dear to Ron’s heart.“We capped it off by getting to play the Gene Upshaw Memorial Classic. The funds that are raised go to pancreatic cancer, which is the same cancer my brother died of, so we were drawn to that,” he said.Rivera said there were a number of times he’d think of his late brother Mickey during the event. Meeting others with the same experience gave the Panthers coach a whole new perspective.“You meet other people who have gone through the same thing and you being to realize, wow, I’m not the only one who was affected like this,” explained Rivera. “Then you get the opportunity to hear how much has been raised in the few years they’ve done it, and I think it’s like $1.5 million that’s gone towards cancer research, which is a tremendous thing.”‘We weren’t just a one hit wonder’
Feeding off of last season’s disappointment, Rivera is optimistic that by getting back to what made them successful in the past will bring the Panthers back atop the NFC South.Pointing to the signings of former Panthers Julius Pepper and Captain Munnerlyn, Rivera expects that veteran leadership, which was missing in 2016, will benefit younger players looking to fit the team’s defensive scheme.“We didn’t have that veteran leadership like we had when we had Roman Harper and Charles Tillman back there,” Rivera said. “So bringing in Julius and bringing in Captain has re-energized our defense.”On offense, Rivera is optimistic that rookies Curtis Samuel and Christian McCaffrey will fill make immediate impacts, and he is hopeful that Matt Kalil, younger brother of center Ryan Kalil, will protect Newton’s blindside for the next six-to-eight years.
So, how will they do?“Potential is a dangerous word in coaching, but I think we have that type of ability to be a dynamic offense,” Rivera said. “I think our receiving corps has the potential to be a very good one, especially with Kelvin (Benjamin) back 100-percent healthy. Greg Olsen is still the threat he’s always been, and then look at the running backs. Now, you plug in Christian McCaffrey and I think you’ve got a whole array of playmakers now.”And it doesn’t hurt having a chip on your shoulder.“I think our guys feel there’s something to prove. That we weren’t just a one-hit wonder. That 2015 wasn’t just one of those moments in time, that we have the ability to have two or three of those shining moments.”