SAN JOSE, Calif. – Ron Rivera has lived this story. Edgy, unstoppable-looking team with a punishing defense, strong running game, and a quarterback with a gigantic personality barrels over just about every opponent on the way to the Super Bowl.
That was the 1985 Chicago Bears, for whom Rivera played linebacker.
That is also the 2015 Carolina Panthers, for whom he serves as head coach.
The Bears were a freewheeling bunch. They talked a ton of trash and even sung it and awkwardly danced it with the recording of the “Super Bowl Shuffle” music video. Offensive and defensive linemen brawled in practice. The head coach, Mike Ditka, had a running feud with his defensive coordinator, Buddy Ryan. The quarterback, Jim McMahon, was a counterculture cult hero who clashed with the coach, the NFL, and the women in New Orleans when he said before Super Bowl XX they were all “sluts.”
Not coincidentally, the Panthers have a couple of things in common with those bad, old Bears. Maybe they’re not as much into the brawling and feuding and insulting, but they do have a trash-talking cornerback in Josh Norman. And their quarterback, Cam Newton, has managed to become somewhat of a polarizing figure for his over-the-top exuberance. Every touchdown is celebrated with a dance and a dab. If you’re an opponent that doesn’t like it, too bad. Keep him out of the end zone and it won’t happen.
After a 15-1 regular season, the ’85 Bears took a final step that the ’15 Panthers have yet to take: They won the Super Bowl in a blowout, 46-10, against the New England Patriots. The Panthers, who were also 15-1 in the regular season, get their chance Sunday against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
You can’t blame Rivera for experiencing a bit of déjà vu this week.
“To me, it means a lot personally when you talk about the Bears’ legacy and having been a part of the ’85 championship team,” he said. “I think, more than anything else, when you go back and look at those teams, it’d be very unfair to compare because they’re different eras, different style of football, different type of football players. And for the most part I think we want to make our own mark. If we can, if we get that opportunity, we’d most certainly love to.
“Now, I think what’s important is we establish who we are.”
Still, in doing so, Rivera is reverting to precisely what he learned from Ditka and Ryan. Like his former coach and defensive coordinator, Rivera stresses to his players not to change anything about themselves for the sake of conforming to someone else’s idea of who they should be.
Too often in football, that robotic approach is encouraged. Think and act as one. Don’t stray from the company line. Avoid drawing too much attention.
Rivera doesn’t want any part of that for the Panthers. Don’t get him wrong. He isn’t encouraging chaos or bad behavior. He just doesn’t want his players to feel inhibited, because he believes that will show up in their performance.
Rivera’s message goes as follows: “Keep your personality. Be who you are. Be true to yourself. Don’t be more, but don’t be less. Be exactly who you are. That’s what got us to where we are today.”
“We’re a multicultural team,” the coach said. “We have a lot of guys from different areas that really do appreciate who they are and who supports them. I really do think that that’s a big part of it. … Don’t be more, don’t be less. By that, what I mean is, don’t shy away from the opportunities, but at the same time let’s not go beyond that. They’ve been really good about that and there is that fine line.”
Said injured Panthers cornerback Charles Tillman: “We’ve got some crazy guys on our team, we’ve got some quiet guys on our team, we’ve got mellow guys on our team, we’ve got hyper guys on our team. But, hey, be you, be yourself. That’s been the DNA of our team and it’s helped us out.”
Start with Norman. He’ll jaw with every receiver who lines up across from him. He’s ready to scrap and wants opposing receivers to know that he will be a constant thorn in their side.
Intimidation is a big part of Norman’s game. Just ask Odell Beckham Jr., who said he “felt threatened” by Panther players, including Norman, carrying baseball bats onto the field and motioning them in Beckham’s direction during pregame warmups when the Panthers and New York Giants met during the season.
“I think his personality is a tremendous part of it because he’s a very confident young man,” Rivera said of Norman. “I think, as he keeps that confidence in the way he plays, you can see it as it carries over to who he is as a football player.”
The entire defense takes a similar approach. It is extremely physical. It puts a premium on hard hits and forcing turnovers, a category in which the Panthers led the NFL with 39 in the regular season and nine in the postseason.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott won’t be confused for Ryan – who effectively behaved as if he were as much the head coach of the Bears as Ditka (with the defensive players even carrying him off the field as Ditka was being carried off after the Super Bowl win – but he does believe that the key to defensive success is forcing the opposition into mistakes.
Not coincidentally, Rivera adopted those principles as a linebacker with the Bears (1984-1992), a defensive quality control coach with the Bears (1997-98), a linebackers coach with the Philadelphia Eagles (1999-2003), a defensive coordinator with the Bears (2004-06), and a linebackers coach and defensive coordinator with the San Diego Chargers (2007-10) before becoming head coach in Carolina in 2011.
“I think there are some similarities for an aggressive style, attacking style of defense,” Rivera said. “Not quite as aggressive like Buddy Ryan had. We have some pretty good personnel, a lot similar to like what we had back in ’85. To me, it’s unfair to compare these teams because they played in different eras – different style of football, different style of football players – but I do like the comparison because I do think there are some similarities.
“I think there are guys that are aggressive that play fast and play physical. Back in the day, Mike Singletary, Wilber Marshall, Otis Wilson, those guys played fast and played physical as well. I like our guys, too. I think (linebackers) Luke (Kuechly), TD (Thomas Davis), Shaq (Thompson) are a great combination of guys to have. Tremendous skill set very similar to those guys. They’re aggressive guys, they play downhill, they play physical.”
But Rivera isn’t only about preaching messages. He gets involved with his players. He gets to know who they are, what makes them tick.
That helps guide him in putting together the puzzle that is the roster, mixing and matching different types of individuals with a common goal: Winning.
“To me, the best thing that Ron does basically is he gets out from behind the desk and spends time with his players in the locker room,” McDermott said. “We know how important that is in today’s NFL. Ron’s a leader of people and puts them in position to be successful, and he listens to the players. He does a good job of that, and yet at the same time, he knows the way he wants it to look and how he wants it done.
“He never delegates the standard, as far as that is concerned. And so from a leadership standpoint, and also relating to today’s modern athlete, I think he does a nice job of that.”
As a former NFL player, Rivera can speak a language current players understand. As someone who has won a Super Bowl, he can offer insights that other coaches can’t.
Rivera would love nothing better than for the ’15 Panthers to achieve the ultimate success that the ’85 Bears had … with one exception.
“I think more than anything else, taken from when I played, is this is an opportunity,” Rivera said. “You only get so many of them. When I played, we were the youngest team to win a Super Bowl and a lot of people thought, ‘They’ll get a chance to come back.’ Well, we never made it back. I’m trying to make sure our guys understand that this could be a once in a lifetime chance and we have to take advantage of that now.”