The success Ron Rivera and Cam Newton had together in Carolina, headlined by four NFC South titles and a 15-1 record that led to a Super Bowl appearance in 2015, is well documented. Although they never won a title together, Rivera and Newton were among the NFL's best coach-quarterback duos over that nine-year span.
On Sunday, the two stood on opposite sidelines at Bank of America Stadium for a regular-season game for the first time. Newton, now back with the Panthers after a season with the New England Patriots and a half season out of the league waiting for a phone call, made his first start with Carolina in over two years and dazzled. Yet, it was the head coach who left Sunday's reunion game victorious, as Rivera's Washington squad defeated Newton and the Panthers, 27-21.
"I felt good. I did. It was fun," Rivera said after the game. "I know it would have been disappointing had it gone the other way, but it was fun. We're very fortunate to come out on top because they played a good football game. But we played a good football game, too, and came out on top."
Over the past week leading up to Sunday's game, both Rivera and Newton tried to downplay the homecoming and reunion narrative. Rivera said he had no bitterness towards the Panthers organization after they fired him, while Newton said he "refused" for the narrative to be about him and his former coach, when it should be about 106 people, referring to 53 players on each sideline.
After the clock hit four zeros on Sunday, Rivera and Newton embraced at midfield, even if it was for just a few seconds.
Although Washington ended up on the winning end of Sunday's game, Rivera raved about Newton postgame when asked about his former quarterback.
"We had the opportunity to greet each other. I'm a big fan," Rivera said. "He's a heck of a competitor. The thing I was concerned about most was him and Christian [McCaffrey], D.J. Moore. Our guys were able to withstand the whole action that those three guys put together. We were very fortunate."
Additionally, Rivera admitted Washington was "lucky" to face Newton and Carolina this week, rather than in a month or so when the quarterback has full knowledge of the team's offensive playbook.
"The nice thing is we caught them before Cam really gets into the playbook," Rivera said. "This is the time to play them. We were fortunate. I know they're going to get more efficient along the more and more he gets into that [playbook]."
In his first start back with the Panthers, Newton finished 21 of 27 for 193 yards and two touchdowns in the air, while also adding 46 yards and a touchdown on the ground. All in all, it was an impressive performance from a quarterback making his first start of the season and someone who was a free agent less than two weeks ago.
While Rivera had plenty of praise for his former quarterback, Newton was a lot vaguer when asked about the head coach after the game.
"We spoke very brief. There [isn't] too much to say. I'm not in that warming mood, I ain't gonna lie to you. I think that's what growth is," Newton said. "I think that's what growth is. I wished him and his team the best. But, you know, shoot, I knew what it was with him. He knew what it was with me. So, it is what it is."
However, the quarterback did credit Rivera for having Washington prepared and did say he's happy for his former coach later on.
"We know who Coach Rivera is. He had those guys dialed in and ready to go," Newton said.
"But I'm happy for him. I'm happy for his team," Newton later added. "They're a good team."
While Newton's return to Carolina was the biggest storyline entering Sunday's game, it was the other former Panthers quarterback that stole the show. Taylor Heinicke, who spent the 2018 season with Rivera, Newton and the Panthers, outplayed his former teammate en route to leading Washington to it's second straight victory.
Heinicke finished Sunday's game completing 16 of 22 passes for 206 yards and three touchdowns, a number that matched his season-high. Heinicke's performance was one of his best this season, as Washington's offense was efficient and effective for much of the afternoon.
Although the 28-year-old only spent one season with the Panthers, he knew how much getting a victory on Sunday would mean to many people in the organization with Carolina roots.
"It was cool. I was only here for a year, so it didn't mean that much," Heinicke said. "But there are a lot of players, a lot of staff, even one of our general managers [WFT executive Marty Hurney] came from there. We knew it was big for them, kind of personal for them. To know that we were going to win there, with those last two kneels, was nice."
To Heinicke's point: In total, over 30 Washington players, coaches and staff members had previously spent time in the Panthers organization when Rivera was there. When the head coach was hired in Washington, he almost entirely remade the staff, with many of his hirings coming from Carolina. That trend continued this offseason, too, when Hurney was hired as a front office executive in Washington. He spent years as the GM in Carolina and was with the organization.
After the game, Heinicke sought to give his head coach a gift to celebrate the victory. The only problem? One of his teammates beat him to it.
"Someone gave me the ball after the game and I was going to give [Rivera] the game ball," Heinicke said. "But Jon Allen beat me to it. Rightfully so. Jon's been here for a while. We knew it was big for Ron. I'm really happy for him."
Earlier in the week, Rivera said that he was going to let his wife, Stephanie, do most of the visiting of old friends in Charlotte this weekend, hoping to keep the "business trip" mindset as much as he could.
But after the game, Rivera admitted his return to Carolina wasn't solely about just winning a football game.
"This city has been very good to me and my family," Rivera said. "Stephanie, myself and my family pretty much have friends for life. This is a hell of a city."
Amidst all the chaos on Sunday, Rivera was able to spot some of his old Charlotte neighbors and old friends in the stand. It was a full-circle moment for the head coach, who was reminded often throughout the day just how much the Queen City has positively impacted him.
"I think everybody that I saw, it was good to see. I really mean that," a smiling Rivera said. "Stephanie and I had a great nine years here, made a lot of great friends. Coming back and seeing everybody, from the guys that used to be my security to neighbors up in the stands. I know where they sit. They were wearing blue, so I was bummed about that."