A young player lucking into just the right coach is always fortuitous, rarely simple or automatic, even with the best of draft choices. Buddy Ryan was the perfect coach for Richard Dent, Dan Hampton and rest of the sometimes-miscreant spirits that were the ’85 Bears. Apart from the matching of skillset to scheme is the matter of personalities, which don’t always necessarily sync up. Mike Ditka and Jim McMahon, not so much.
But the pairing of Cam Newton and Ron Rivera may be on course to be one of the best ever, right along with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady or Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. And this has nothing to do with specifics of coaching, which Rivera has left largely in the hands of former Bears assistant Mike Shula, now Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator and previously Newton’s quarterbacks coach.
It’s about Rivera being comfortable with Newton the Entertainer. Let that pony run, and Rivera has. Rivera was part of the greatest cult of personality in NFL history — the '85 Bears — and he knows very, very well what happens when epic talent blends with personality and that personality gets loose on the NFL.
Newton has won nothing remotely on the scale of Brady or Montana, or even McMahon, for that matter. But rare elements of the foundation are there and are far more interesting than any racial or other discussions swirling around Newton. From his defense base, Rivera has demanded a balanced offense overall and made ball security an absolute. Newton has progressively gotten that, culminating this year with a career lows in interception rate and sacks taken. Newton is sub-60-percent in career completion percentage but he doesn’t give the football away (five fumbles).
But more to the bigger point: Rivera is very clearly comfortable with personality, which Newton is and has. Rivera was there to see what can happen when Ryan imposes minimal absolutes and lets his players do their jobs with the personalities that made them who they were in the first place. Rivera specifically mentioned this week what he’d seen McMahon do that Thursday night in Minnesota so he knows what a free spirit can really do when you let it be.
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Newton really didn’t have a lot of choice when Rivera and the Panthers tabbed him as the No. 1 pick of the 2011 draft. What Newton got was the right coach for who he is as a personality, even with Rivera, like Belichick, coming from the other side of the football. Rivera was there through the ‘80s Bears and was eminently familiar with what was important and what wasn’t — much like John Madden and his sometimes-miscreant Oakland Raiders teams, who had just two Madden absolutes: Be on time, and pay attention.
Rivera said it all on Wednesday, recalling the Panthers’ one loss (to Atlanta) and some of why they lost: “I told our guys let’s keep our personalities and be who we are. If people don’t like us, then that’s theirs.”
Newton got the right guy. And vice versa.