The story begins in 1977 at the old Edgewater Packing Company on Cannery Row by Monterey Bay, a place known for arcade games and a magnificent antique wooden carousel. A 15-year-old is here with his friends, doing things that teenagers do.
He stops cold when he sees the man who, just weeks earlier, he watched being carried off the field by Ted Hendricks and John Matuszak at the conclusion of Super Bowl XI.
"That's John Madden!" he says to his friends.
And it is. The head coach of the Oakland Raiders had taken his family there for a getaway.
Like most kids in the Salinas Valley, this one is a Raiders fan. He loves the tough, physical style of football the Raiders embodied—and the slogan: Commitment to Excellence. And the coach, well, he is larger than life. Alone, the young man approaches him.
"Hi, Coach Madden," he says. "I'm a big fan of yours. My name is Ron Rivera."
"You play football?" the affable coach asks.
"What year are you in school?"
"I'm a sophomore, and someday I hope to get a chance to play in the NFL."
"Well, you are big enough. Keep going."
Keep going. That's what the kid did.
That chance connection would begin to grow into a defining mentorship in a conference room on a quiet, winding, leafy street in Lake Forest, Illinois, in the late 1980s. The teenager had become a man—an NFL linebacker, in fact, playing for the Chicago Bears. The coach had become a broadcaster. They would talk football in a pregame production meeting, a thrill all over again for Rivera.
It would continue to evolve in an office in Pleasanton, California, where a 1961 trading card of Pat Summerall sat in a desk drawer, a photo of George Halas and Vince Lombardi hung on the wall and a replica of a bust from the Pro Football Hall of Fame sat on the credenza. It was early 2013, and Rivera—two years into his tenure as a head coach—had come for guidance at the suggestion of his team owner Jerry Richardson. Rivera and Madden would talk for nearly four hours—so long that Rivera was apologetic. The young coach would take notes the whole time.
It became a yearly ritual.
Many have influenced Rivera as he's grown from that teenager into an NFL player, then from that timid young coach into a coach so sure of himself—and willing to bet on his instincts—that he is now affectionately known as "Riverboat Ron." He played for Mike Ditka, and he's still learning from him three decades later. He has taken from Buddy Ryan, Andy Reid and the late Jim Johnson. He has received great advice from Bill Cowher, Jimmy Johnson and Jerry West. He has soaked up quite a bit from Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman.
Rivera venerates experienced voices. Written on a board in his office is a saying: "If you have never been there before, don't draw me a map." He appreciates the map Madden drew more than any.
Madden famously had three rules for his team, and three rules only.
1. Be on time.
2. Pay attention.
3. Play like hell.
The Panthers also have three rules, and three rules only.
You can hear traces of the mentorship in the headsets of Panthers coaches at Bank of America Stadium. Assistants hear Rivera's calm voice as they deliberate the decisions that can win and lose games.
Rivera isn't telling any of them what to do. He is not saying, "Use this pass," or, "Don't play this coverage."
"He is saying, 'In this situation, be aware of this,'" Panthers assistant head coach Steve Wilks said. "He is reminding us of things we talked about. But he's allowing coaches to call their games and to do their jobs."
Rivera often assigns his assistants to speak to the team the night before a game. During the week, he might walk in on a defensive or offensive meeting, but he stays in the back and lets the coordinators lead and coach.
In one of their get-togethers, Madden told Rivera, "You can delegate the authority, but you cannot delegate the standard." Setting the standard is the head coach's job. Rivera has approached it that way since—allowing autonomy while making expectations clear.
"I always used to wonder why Coach Ditka pushed us so hard and got pissed off at us," Rivera said. "Then it dawned on me after I talked with Coach Madden. He was trying to get us to reach his standard. And his standard was that of a Hall of Famer. I am by no means a Hall of Famer, but I have tried to establish a similar standard."
You can feel the mentorship in end zones around the NFL as Panthers quarterback Cam Newton dances and dabs, and you can feel it in the sleds on the practice field by the side of Bank of America Stadium.
Many critics and opponents fuss when Newton becomes the center of attention for his celebrations.
Many coaches would fuss, too.
Rivera does not.
He feels good about letting Cam be Cam, in part because Madden would have done the same thing.
"One of the things he told me is, 'Everybody talks about how Cam should act and how he should be handled,'" Rivera said. "But he said, 'He doesn't need to be handled, Ron. He needs to be worked with. He has to understand the parameters, but you have to let him be who he is.'"
Madden knows. He had a quarterback once who had a personality that could not be suppressed. He will find out this week if the late Ken Stabler will be voted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a senior nominee.
"Cam's personality isn't like Stabler's, but I think in both cases you have to be tolerant of their individualism," Rivera said. "A player can conform to the team within your personality, and that's what both did. Here, we all feed off Cam's energy."
Rivera embraces this new-age football psychology. But he does so while staying married to old-school football principles.
"Coach puts a huge emphasis on physical football and tackling," 12-year veteran Jared Allen said. "I have been on teams where that has gotten lost, and you are getting [physically beaten] at the point of attack. Here, the message gets repeated."
On every Wednesday throughout the season on the practice field, the Panthers have a tackling period. Linemen, linebackers and defensive backs each are assigned a station. The drills each week are tailored to the opponent. Amid the sounds of grunts and collisions is the sound of metal sliding against metal. The seven-man Crowther blocking sled gets a lot of use here, as does the two-man Crowther blocking sled. The Madden Raiders used those same types of sleds.
If the opposing running back has an effective stiff arm, the defensive backs might work on how to negate it. The linebackers might participate in an old-school drive-for-five drill—make contact with a sled, fire the hands and then get the knees driving for five yards. The linemen might work on hitting the sled, disengaging and bringing down a bag.
Offensive players get on those sleds, too. There is a reason the Panthers finished second in the NFL in rushing.
"Coach Madden and I talked about how some teams don't have that mentality—they don't use a blocking fullback or a blocking tight end," Rivera said. "He thinks that slows a lot of offenses down, and I agree with him."
You can see the mentorship in Rivera's office, on a greaseboard where plays are drawn and systems are developed, and in a photo on the wall of Rivera with former teammate Walter Payton. Payton could have fit in any system. There aren't many like him.
Many coaches fall into the trap of running their systems regardless of the abilities—and inabilities—of their players. Madden warned Rivera about that.
"Don't do things just because this is what you do," Madden told him. "If a guy is a better zone-cover guy, why are you playing so much man? Play to their strengths."
Subsequently, Rivera has influenced offensive coordinator Mike Shula to find creative ways to get the most out of Newton.
"Mike and I talked about how important it was to grow the offense around him, and not fit him into the offense," Rivera said. "We do things that play to his skill set. We want him with the ball in his hands making decisions. He is making decisions."
Newton has options on run plays beyond the zone read, and he runs the ball on every type of play imaginable. The Panthers are using Newton in ways no quarterback in history has been used.
Linebacker Thomas Davis is another example of a player whose abilities have inspired the Panthers coaches to use him in different ways.
"He can cover a tight end, he can blitz, he can play in space," Wilks said. "So we have created a package that puts him in position to use his extreme athleticism."
Yet another case of adjusting the system to meet the personnel: When the Panthers lost two of their three best cornerbacks late in the season, they responded by signing a couple of unemployed veterans and putting them in the lineup—but the full response was not reported on the news ticker. Coaches began matching up Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman with the other teams' best receivers more frequently, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said.
Their adjusted pass defense is no less effective.
In one meeting, Madden and Rivera discussed how to overcome player losses. The idea, Madden told him, was to focus on the things you could control. Many wrote off the Panthers when wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL in August. The 2014 first-round pick was supposed to be Newton's best friend in the passing game.
Without many appealing choices, Rivera and his staff made the decision to lean on a 30-year-old journeyman on his fourth team. For most of Ted Ginn Jr.'s career, he was a one-trick pony, running only deep routes. But in 2015, the Panthers staff expanded his role and gave him the whole route tree. They asked him to make all kinds of catches. Ginn answered the challenge with the best season of his career, and the Panthers averaged more yards per game (224 to 219) and more yards per pass (7.7 to 7.0) than they did with Benjamin the previous season.
Perhaps the ultimate evidence of the mentorship resides in Rivera's gut. That is where his game management decisions often emanate from.
In his early days as a head coach, Rivera's decisions were overly vanilla. In games decided by five points or fewer in his first two years, the Panthers went 0-6. He asked Madden what he was doing wrong.
"Your biggest problem," Madden told him, "is you played by the book. There is no book. Do what your instincts tell you. You've played enough football and coached enough to rely on your instincts.
"Do it your way, not by the book."
After a conservative decision by Rivera contributed to a loss to the Bills in the second game of the 2013 season, he embraced Madden's advice and became "Riverboat Ron." The rest of the season, he went for it on 4th-and-1 nine times in a dozen opportunities. The Panthers converted eight times and won 12 of their last 14 games.
This season, the Panthers have been so dominant that Rivera hasn't had to make many similar calls. But he still is listening to his instincts.
The Panthers have a system in place for coaching challenges in which Rivera relies on assistants in the coaching booth to watch replays before he decides to throw the red flag or keep it in his pocket. In a December game, officials ruled Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan did not fumble on a sack by Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short. Before ever hearing from the coaches in the booth, Rivera knew he wanted a challenge. He got one, and the Panthers got the football.
Rivera has won nine of his 14 challenges this season.
The mentorship now lives through Rivera's cellphone. Texts and voicemails from Madden keep coming, though they have become more infrequent since Madden underwent heart surgery in December.
After a late-season victory, Rivera's cell buzzes.
"Your team does everything I think a football team should do," the text reads. "I'm proud of the way you play."
Rivera shares it with his team.
Messages from Madden are special to Rivera.
"It has given him more confidence to hear Coach Madden tell him he's doing a great job," Rivera's wife, Stephanie, said. "It confirms he is doing things the right way."
In a scrapbook in Rivera's childhood home in Marina, California, is a 39-year-old autograph. It is part of a collection of mementos kept by his mother Delores that the family jokingly refers to as Ron's "shrine."
"To Ron," the autograph reads. "Best wishes and good luck. John Madden."
Sunday's Super Bowl at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara is about an 80-minute drive from the place that used to be the Edgewater Packing Company. Here, Lady Gaga will sing the national anthem, raising millions of goosebumps. Military aircraft will fly overhead and the stadium will tremble.
Rivera will try to spoil the moment for Peyton Manning, who spoiled his moment in Super Bowl XLI. Manning was the quarterback for the Colts then, and Rivera was the defensive coordinator for the Bears.
When the game ends, colors will fill the sky, 500 pounds of confetti will fall and a song by Queen will play. Then, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will hand someone a shiny silver trophy from Tiffany's that weighs more than you'd think.
Madden, still recovering, is not expected to be there.
But in some way, surely he will be.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.
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