By Steve Silverman
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Ron Rivera was on track to become an NFL head coach from the time he entered the league as a rookie linebacker from California in 1984.
When Rivera was drafted in the second round by the Chicago Bears, Mike Ditka was the head coach, Buddy Ryan was the defensive coordinator, and Mike Singletary was the starting middle linebacker for one of the most brilliant defenses the game has ever seen.
Rivera came into the NFL with his eyes wide open and realized quickly that he was in a position to learn from all three men. In the short run, it helped him become an effective linebacker who was able to play nine years in the NFL.
But he became so enamored with the preparation aspect of the game that a coaching career became inevitable.
Rivera did not rush right into coaching when his career came to an end after the 1992 season. He worked in Chicago media for three years on television and radio, and he developed a reputation for thoughtfulness and patience.
While he was working with many non-players on the air, he did not try to come across as the expert who “had been there before.” He was genuinely interested in what his partners had to say.
That characteristic has been a part of Rivera’s personality throughout his coaching career. After starting with the Bears as a quality control/defensive assistant, he went to the Philadelphia Eagles, where Andy Reid was the head coach and Jim Johnson was the defensive coordinator.
Reid left nearly every defensive decision up to Johnson, who was the league’s top-ranking defensive mind in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Johnson’s defense played with a relentless get-to-the-quarterback edge, and the Eagles dominated when it came to sacking the quarterback.
Johnson became a great mentor to Rivera, who was able to go back to Chicago in 2004 as the team’s defensive coordinator under Lovie Smith.
While that mix lasted for three years and was not the best pairing, Rivera was able to compare and contrast Johnson’s blitzing scheme with Smith’s Tampa-2 scheme.
Rivera’s defensive influences had all been elite teachers in Ryan, Johnson and Smith, and he was ready to become a head coach.
He was on the interview circuit for years, but it seemed that nobody was willing to take a shot until the Panthers made him an offer shortly after the 2010 season came to a close.
The first two years were not easy for him, as the Panthers were a 6-10 team in his first season and 7-9 in his second. When Carolina got off to a 1-3 start in 2013, the wolves were howling at the door, and it appeared that Rivera was on the firing line.
But the Panthers found their stride as Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis became star players. They went 11-1 the rest of the way and won the NFC South.
That regular-season success did not translate into the postseason, as Carolina was beaten at home by Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers.
The tailspin lasted well into the 2014 season. The Panthers were 3-8-1, and Rivera was hearing criticism from all angles. An offseason firing seemed quite possible, but his team won its last four games to clinch a very bad division with a 7-8-1 record. The Panthers even won a playoff game before losing to the Seattle Seahawks.
By the time the team assembled this summer, the Panthers and Rivera were prepared for brilliance. There was no ranting and raving from the coach, just a steady keep-on, keeping-on philosophy that was preached to all his players.
Rivera has explained his philosophy of coaching in this manner: “It’s simply a matter of understanding your team’s capabilities and getting your players to play at their highest level. Once you can do that, you are going to have success.”
Rivera has done that, and his team is one step away from reaching the NFL’s highest level.
He may not have gotten there in a hurry, but every step of the journey has been an important one and has paid off in an impressive manner.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy