A cliche perhaps, but living well is the best revenge. And it is how Ron Rivera has been going about his life’s work, as SI writer Austin Murphy chronicles nicely in his piece “Ron Rivera’s rift with Lovie Smith behind him in Super Bowl return.”
The Carolina Panthers head coach and member of the ’85 Bears has gotten far, far beyond one of his greatest career disappointments, that of being let go as defensive coordinator by Smith in the aftermath of the Bears’ Super Bowl XLI loss to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
Fittingly perhaps, Rivera now faces Manning in another Super Bowl, although job security is obviously not in the Rivera discussion now, win or lose on Sunday. (It might be for Manning, but certainly not for Rivera.)
[MORE SUPER BOWL 50: Cam Newton’s success traces to Ron Rivera letting him be himself]
But as Austin lays out, a big part of the feel-good surrounding Rivera and his Panthers being in the Super Bowl is how Rivera has refused to dwell on or even talk extensively about how things ended in Chicago.
A touch of perspective here: On the surface, that Rivera ever had issues as a defensive coach is puzzling. He was the Philadelphia Eagles linebackers coach under Jim Johnson, then Chicago's defensive coordinator, then on to San Diego as a linebackers coach (2007) and defensive coordinator (2007-10) and finally to Carolina as top man.
But everywhere he’s been, Rivera has been a part of very, very good defenses. In Philadelphia (1999-2003) the Eagles ranked 11th in his first year, then Top 5 in four of his last five years. In Chicago, the defenses ranked 13, 1 and 3.
The Chargers ranked 5, 15, 11 and 10 in Rivera’s four years there. And the Panthers were 2, 21 and 6 in the past three seasons.
[MORE SUPER BOWL 50: Broncos vs. Panthers - And the winner is...]
But Austin’s story looks more specifically at Chicago, and ultimately at Smith as much as Rivera.
One element that bothered Smith was Rivera’s aggressive quest for a head-coaching job, with an annual procession of interviews that didn’t get Rivera a job but it did fuel any reservations Smith might have had about Rivera.
That’s unfortunate. Few compliments of coaching compare to a member of one’s staff being successful elsewhere, which Rivera ultimately was, albeit after settling for a demotion to linebackers coach with San Diego in 2007. That quickly became defensive coordinator the next year and stayed there until the end of the 2010 season when Rivera succeeded John Fox as Panthers field boss.
There’s some sort of odd irony in the idea that loyalty, a truly prized value in people generally, can be such a liability in sports. But that’s a simple fact, if only because friendship does not automatically equate to competence.
[MORE SUPER BOWL 50: What Mike Ditka advice is former Bears LB Ron Rivera taking into Super Bowl 50?]
What Smith did was to effectively get rid of Rivera and promote Bob Babich from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator. Babich was a longtime friend of Smith’s and had helped out one of Smith’s sons going through a rough stretch in college once upon a time. But Babich was a disaster as a coordinator, nicknamed “Bullet” by players who found him amusing but not a coach who inspired true respect from the likes of Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher and others.
Babich went on to become Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator, a job he lost after the 2015 season following three disastrous years.
After Ron Turner was let go as offensive coordinator in 2009 following a scratchy one season with quarterback Jay Cutler, Smith turned to Mike Martz for the job. Martz had given Smith his first coordinator’s post while the two were with the St. Louis Rams.
But Martz had been out of the game for the two previous seasons after being fired in San Francisco. His force-feeding an out-of-step, deep-drop offense to Cutler worked from the standpoint of reining in Cutler’s interception tendencies, but the offense crumbled in the second half of 2011 and Martz proved unable to find anything with Caleb Hanie and then Josh McCown. Martz was gone after 2011 and hasn’t coached since.
As Austin details in his SI piece on Rivera, Smith has gone down with loyalty hires in Tampa as well.
[SHOP BEARS: Get your Bears gear right here]
Very notably, however, is that Smith was successful, just not to the degree that his last two general manager's wanted. Phil Emery fired Smith after a 10-6 mark in 2012. Jason Licht dumped Smith this offseason despite Smith improving the Bucs from two to six wins with Rookie of the Year quarterback Jameis Winston.
Rivera’s Panthers were a combined 4-0 against Smith’s Buccaneers over the latter’s two Tampa Bay seasons, outscoring the Bucs 114-64.
The first Bears game in 2007 after Rivera was let go by Smith was against the Chargers. The Chargers shocked the defending NFC champions 14-3.
The final game of Smith’s Tampa Bay tenure was against Rivera’s Panthers, who mauled Smith’s Buccaneers 38-10. Three days later Smith was fired.
Indeed, living well is always the best revenge.