Part Nine of our “Meet the Coaches” segment here at Cat Crave will take a look at the main man in charge of the Panthers – the head coach.
Ron Rivera – Head Coach
PLAYING AND PERSONAL
Rivera was born Jan. 7, 1962, in Fort Ord, California. Coming from a military background, he lived in Germany, Panama, Washington and Maryland before his family settled in Marina, California. He attended Seaside High School in Marina and was a three-sport star in football, basketball and baseball.
Rivera was an All-American at the University of California and finished his career as the school’s all-time leader in sacks with 22 and tackles with 336. In 1983, he set the Bears’ single-season record for sacks with 13 and tackles for loss with 26.5.
Selected in the second round of the 1984 NFL Draft by Chicago, Rivera played all nine of his pro seasons with the Bears. Primarily an outside linebacker, he appeared in 149 games with 62 starts (including 12 postseason contests with six starts) and posted 392 tackles, 7.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, nine interceptions and 15 passes defensed. Rivera was a member of six NFC Central division title teams and a Super Bowl XX championship team in 1985.
Rivera was known for both his skill and determination on the field and his dedication of time and energy to the community as a player. He was named the Bears’ Man of the Year in 1988 and earned the club’s Ed Block Courage Award in 1989.
Following his retirement, Rivera went into broadcasting. He covered the Chicago Bears and college football as a television analyst for WGN and SportsChannel Chicago for four years from 1993-96.
Rivera gained his first coaching experience with the Bears as defensive quality control coach from 1997-98.
Rivera then spent five seasons from 1999-2003 as the linebackers coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, who advanced to the NFC Championship game in each of his final three seasons. The team finished second in the NFL in scoring defense and in 2001 and held all 16 of its opponents to less than 21 points – making them just the fourth team in NFL history to do so. In Rivera’s five seasons with the Eagles, a member of his linebacker corps led the team in tackles four times.
From 2004-06, Rivera oversaw the Chicago Bears defense, leading the unit to two top-five finishes in the league. Under Rivera’s supervision, five different defensive players went to the Pro Bowl: linebacker Lance Briggs, safety Mike Brown, defensive tackle Tommie Harris, linebacker Brian Urlacher and cornerback Nathan Vasher.
In his first season as a defensive coordinator in 2004, Rivera presided over a defense that produced nine more takeaways and 17 more sacks than the previous year and scored a franchise-record and NFC-high six defensive touchdowns. The Bears also thrived on third down and buckled down inside their own 20-yard line, ranking first in the NFL in third-down efficiency (30.5 percent) and topping the NFC in red zone defense (42.6 percent).
The following year, Chicago continued to build on the foundation Rivera laid in 2004. The Bears won their first of two consecutive NFC North titles and stood second in the NFL in total defense. In surrendering the fewest points in the league, Rivera’s defense went 43 consecutive quarters without allowing more than seven points – the longest streak in the NFL since 1969. Chicago also led the NFL in red zone defense (32.5 percent) and rated second in third-down efficiency (31.9 percent).
During Rivera’s last season with the Bears in 2006, the defense paced the NFL with 44 takeaways and finished fifth in the league in total defense and third in scoring defense, helping propel Chicago to the NFC Championship and an appearance in Super Bowl XLI.
Rivera worked with the San Diego Chargers from 2007-10. He coached inside linebackers before taking over as the team’s defensive coordinator midway through the 2008 season.
With Rivera’s guidance, the pass defense steadied itself – intercepting nine passes and yielding 229.6 passing yards per game and 11 touchdown passes over the final eight games. Those numbers contrasted to the first half of the season when San Diego notched just seven picks and was victimized for 265.1 yards per game and 14 touchdowns through the air.
In Rivera’s first full season leading the San Diego Chargers defense in 2009, the Chargers ranked 16th in total defense and 11th against the pass. One of the unit’s strengths was playing tough after offensive turnovers, giving up only 44 points, a figure that tied New England for the second fewest in the NFL.
Those rankings improved in 2010 as San Diego led the NFL with an average of 271.6 total yards allowed per game and gave up a league-low 177.8 passing yards per game. Overall, the Chargers finished in the top five in 11 different defensive statistical categories despite not having any defenders selected to the Pro Bowl.
Rivera came to the Carolina Panthers as head coach in 2011 with a reputation for hard work, attention to detail, and preparation. Those qualities were exhibited in his first campaign as the Panthers tripled their win total from the previous season despite no off-season and an epidemic of defensive injuries. Rivera did not even meet his team until they reported to training camp and, despite a slow start, held it together to finish with four wins in the final six games.
Rivera has excelled as a coach and player during his 25 years in the NFL, serving as defensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers’ top-ranked defense in 2010 and playing linebacker for the Chicago Bears’ top-ranked defense and Super Bowl XX championship team in 1985. In 16 seasons as a coach and nine as a player, he has been with teams that have reached the playoffs 16 times, including eight conference championships and two Super Bowls.
The mentality of the Chargers defense that Rivera coached and the Bears defense on which he played resonates within the head coach. In 2012, that mindset became a part of the Panthers’ mentality as Carolina finished the season ranked 10th in yards allowed, a jump of 18 places from 2011. It was on the strength of that defensive improvement that the Panthers won five of their last six games to improve their win total for the second consecutive year.
Carolina made a similar jump on offense in Rivera’s first season. With the addition of Newton, Carolina jumped from last to seventh in total offense in 2011.
Rivera’s identity has been influenced by two innovative defensive coordinators. As a player, Rivera was coached by Buddy Ryan, the architect of the “46 Defense,” which involved blitzing on nearly every down. As a coach, Rivera toiled under the late Jim Johnson, a highly regarded defensive coordinator renowned for his aggressive approach.
His identity also has been shaped by his family. The son of a U.S. Army officer and the second youngest of four boys, Rivera learned from a young age about chain of command and many of the principles he teaches and expects from his players.
“Coming from a military background, there’s a lot of discipline, a lot of structure. That’s how I feel like when I coach,” Rivera said.
Ron Rivera has brought the same work ethic and dedication to head coaching as he did to playing, taking the Panthers in a positive direction over the last two years. Rivera inherited a team with a 2-14 record and has steadily guided Carolina from six wins in 2011 to seven in 2012 while building a foundation that includes back-to-back rookies of the year in quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly.
1997-98 Defensive Quality Control Chicago Bears
1999-2003 Linebackers Philadelphia Eagles
2004-06 Defensive Coordinator Chicago Bears
2007-08 Inside Linebackers San Diego Chargers
2008-10 Defensive Coordinator San Diego Chargers
2011-current Head Coach Carolina Panthers