First Puerto Rican in the National Football League and to coach an NFL team.
By Chris Wesseling
SAN FRANCISCO — For the second time in three years, Ron Rivera of the Carolina Panthers has captured the NFL’s highest coaching honor.
Rivera was announced as the NFL Coach of the Year during Saturday’s NFL Honors award show.
Most analysts wrote the Panthers off as a legitimate Super Bowl contender when No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin went down with a torn ACL in August. Instead, Rivera’s outfit became just the fourth team in NFL history to win 14 consecutive games to start the season.
If they come out on the winning end of Super Bowl, the 2015 Panthers will be the first team since Rivera’s celebrated 1985 Super Bowl Shuffle Bears to hoist the Lombardi Trophy with 18 wins versus just one loss. Going back to December of 2014, Rivera has led Carolina to 22 wins in 24 games.
Whereas schisms divide front offices in other cities, Rivera works hand-in-glove with shrewd general manager Dave Gettleman to turn under-the-radar free agents and afterthought rookies into key contributors. The unsung wide receiver corps was assembled with a “Moneyball” approach. The road-grading offensive line, billed as a preseason weakness, paved the way for the NFL’s most consistently successful rushing attack since the mid-1970s Steelers. Built with veteran castoffs and late-round draft picks, the patchwork secondary helped generate a league-best 39 takeaways.
Beyond his reputation as one of the game’s premier defensive strategists, Rivera deserves credit for compiling a top-notch coaching staff. The offensive line tandem of John Matsko and Ray Brown has worked wonders. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott will be one of the hottest names on the head-coaching market next January. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula has been labeled a “genius” for crafting an entire system around the unique talents of Cam Newton.
This year’s award is a testament to how far Rivera has come since beginning his Panthers stint with a 13-21 record and a penchant for letting close games slip away.
Every NFL coach was once another coach’s protégé. A head football coach does not come by his philosophy casually, particularly one with a conservative bent learned at the knees of “Iron” Mike Ditka, Buddy Ryan, Jim Johnson and Lovie Smith. To Rivera’s everlasting credit, he was open-minded enough to welcome a mid-career football epiphany that embraced an expanded understanding of probability in determining the outcome of football games. No longer playing it by the proverbial book, “Riverboat Ron” has emerged as one of the NFL’s best strategists on fourth downs and in close games.
Prior to 2014, no team had ever won the NFC South in back-to-back years. Rivera’s Panthers have reeled off three consecutive titles, with a chance to become NFL champions for the first time in franchise history.