“He made himself available for you,” former Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “That can help guys trust him and believe in him.”
The Washington Redskins need somebody to believe in, and on Thursday afternoon, they introduced Rivera as their new coach. One of the first things owner Daniel Snyder said in introducing Rivera served as a brutal and fundamental assessment of his franchise. “What the Redskins have needed,” Snyder said, “is a culture change.”
Those issues may be too deep for any one person to solve. Still, players and coaches who have worked with Rivera described him as an ideal leader to fix what ails Washington, an antidote for a franchise riven with dysfunction and competing agendas.
In his opening statement, Rivera stressed his desire to create a “player-centered culture” and to cultivate “not just the players we want but the men in the community that we need.” His nine-year tenure in Carolina suggests he will take a hands-on approach to resetting Washington’s culture, both on practice fields and literally inside the locker room.
In Carolina, Rivera took over a 2-14 disaster in 2011. In his first team meeting, he told players he intended to win the Super Bowl. No one took him for corny, because they knew his credentials — he was a backup linebacker and core special teams player on the 1985 Chicago Bears, a dominant Super Bowl champion.
“He’s definitely a guy that can command the room — any room,” said former Carolina fullback Mike Tolbert, who followed Rivera from San Diego, where Rivera had served as defensive coordinator. “Doesn’t matter if he’s in the White House or the locker room. You’re going to know he’s there.”
From the start of his NFL journey, Rivera has been a catalyzing force. The Bears of the mid-1980s were a collection of massive egos and loud personalities. As a special teams captain, Rivera worked with all facets of the roster. He became one of the most respected figures in the locker room, admired for his intellect and sincerity, even as a young, backup linebacker on a team of stars.
“There’s importance pieces to great teams,” said Dave McGinnis, Rivera’s linebackers coach in Chicago. “It’s not always the big-name players who jump out. It takes other players to form the glue. Ron Rivera was one of those guys.”
McGinnis fielded numerous calls over the years from executives and head coaches interested in Rivera, wondering what he thought of his former player. His response: “You need to hire him immediately.” McGinnis would explain he had never met anyone who better understood how to connect with NFL players or how to get an entire franchise aligned.
“It’s a wonderful hire by the Redskins,” said McGinnis, a 30-year NFL coaching veteran who now broadcasts Tennessee Titans games on radio. “It just makes so much sense. The people that will be involved with him in that building — I’m not even talking about the football staff — everybody within that organization, they will feel they have somebody that is able to coalesce everybody into one common goal. He’s a really, really sharp human being and a damn good football coach.”
Rivera’s players described him in paradoxical terms: a disciplinarian befitting his upbringing in a military home and a players’ coach who always supported them. Rivera wanted to build a family atmosphere, inviting players to bring their children to practice on some days. Munnerlyn called him “a listener.” But he also could cuss out players who arrived one minute late to a meeting. He enforced few rules, but players knew they needed to follow them.
“He’s such a nice dude and mild-mannered when he speaks to you that when he does get pissed off and lights into somebody or lights into the team, it’s almost like, ‘Well, damn,’ ” former Carolina linebacker Jon Beason said. “There is a switch, and you do see the player come out. Coaches who are always cursing you and on you, it becomes repetitive. First and foremost, guys will see he has their interest in mind.”
Rivera’s locker room sessions were key. Most head coaches rarely enter the locker room for any reason other than to grab a cup of Gatorade. Rivera anchored himself in Carolina’s, serving as a sounding board and a unifying force. He could spark conversations between players from either side of the ball, forging bonds between players who may not cross paths otherwise.
Shortly before the season, Rivera would host an event he dubbed “Bowlapalooza,” a team bowling outing with players’ families. When a player had a charity function, Rivera would make sure to tell the entire team. “He always said it’s not mandatory,” Munnerlyn said. “But, oh, lord, it’s mandatory.”
Rivera’s tactics in the wrong hands would have played as cheesy. The locker room is a players’ sanctuary, and the hard-edge men who play in the NFL would view many coaches’ presence as an intrusion. But the Panthers welcomed Rivera because he won their respect with his sincerity and, as a former player, his understanding.
Rivera wants players to take ownership of their team. Tolbert joined the Panthers in 2012, Rivera’s second season. They had formed a relationship in San Diego. Tolbert noticed the silence in the Panthers’ locker room, a holdover from the previous regime, which didn’t allow music. Tolbert went to Rivera’s office.
“Coach, what the hell is this?” Tolbert asked. “This ain’t us. This ain’t you.”
“I was waiting for somebody to ask,” Rivera said. For the remainder of his tenure, music thumped in Carolina’s locker room.
In Rivera’s first year, he switched Munnerlyn, a seventh-round pick, from outside corner to nickelback, reasoning that his quickness could better negate his lack of height. Munnerlyn was surprised when Rivera started instructing him in individual drills, a rare step for a head coach.
“You could be the 53rd man on the roster,” Munnerlyn said. “If he can help those guys, he’s going to. That’s why people follow him and gravitate toward him, and they fall in love with Coach Rivera.”
Said Tolbert: “He wanted everybody to feel important, whether it’s the athletic trainer or the starting quarterback.”
On Thursday at Redskins Park, Rivera said Washington would succeed only if “we truly become a family.” He means it. He encouraged Panthers players to plan outings not only with one another but with their families. Rivera believed the personal connections would surface on the field, that knowing one another deeply would lead to caring for teammates, which would lead to better performance.
“He thinks that helps with football,” Munnerlyn said.
Rivera’s culture building also will rely on his personnel. He has proved he can identify and develop a strong staff. Two of his Carolina defensive coordinators, Sean McDermott and Steve Wilks, became head coaches under his guidance. Tolbert guessed Rivera would attempt to sign Carolina free agents — mentioning defensive end Mario Addison and defensive lineman Gerald McCoy by name — to help institute his philosophy.
Before a 2015 practice, Tolbert’s mother called Rivera’s cellphone and told him she needed to speak with her son. His uncle, with whom he was close, had died. Rivera arranged for the use of the Panthers’ private plane and allowed veterans Thomas Davis and Charles Johnson to fly with Tolbert and General Manager Dave Gettleman to the funeral on a Saturday before a game.
The players arrived back at the team hotel late at night to find Rivera waiting in the lobby. “Why the f--- y’all so late?” Rivera asked them, breaking into laughter.
The episode, Tolbert said, summed up Rivera, a coach able to connect with his players through both caring and affability. Those qualities can be overrated in a football coach. But they also can help repair a broken culture, which is the precise problem the Redskins face. Rivera faces a tall task, but those who know him are enthusiastic that he will.
“Oh, man, I think he’s going to turn that whole thing around,” Munnerlyn said. “Everybody knows it’s a process. Don’t get me wrong. They definitely got the right man who can do it.”
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