The northern migration of former Panthers over the past two years — from top executives to practice squad players to low-rung staffers in non-football departments — has not gone unnoticed. Some in the building who preceded the Rivera era now call the team “Carolina North.” Top wide receiver Terry McLaurin, who has played only for Washington, teased teammates with ties to Carolina.
“I say: ‘It’s the reunion! It’s the reunion week!’ ” he said, grinning, adding that it’s natural to expect emotions from former Panthers. “Obviously coming into this game, the energy’s going to be crazy with Cam coming back.”
In a Hollywood-esque twist, Carolina probably will start quarterback Cam Newton against his former coach. Panthers Coach Matt Rhule told reporters Wednesday that Newton — Rivera’s first draft pick in 2011 who was cut by the New England Patriots in September — is “trending toward” being the starter after the team signed him Nov. 11. When asked about Newton, Rivera was complimentary but curt, saying it’s “kind of a cool deal” the 32-year-old former MVP will get a chance to revive his career where it began.
In Rivera’s career, Charlotte remains central. He interviewed for a head-coaching job nine times before the Panthers gave him a chance; he guided the team to a Super Bowl appearance in 2015; he became embedded in the community, especially with the Humane Society, Ronald McDonald House and United Service Organizations; he compiled a 76-63-1 record over nine seasons, a lengthy tenure for any football coach; and he brought most of his personnel and processes from there. He said he still keeps a notepad with lessons he learned from the Panthers’ Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos.
When asked why Newton was never a part of the system import, Rivera demurred. He pointed out he wanted to get younger — like the Panthers did while rebuilding from his tenure.
“If it was possible to emulate everything that we did there, I would have,” Rivera said. “I just felt that this was an opportunity for us that we were going completely different. This was going to be a young team, a bunch of young players, which is what we're trying to do.”
In December 2019, with Newton injured again and the luster of the Super Bowl long faded, Carolina lost to Washington to slide to 5-7. The team’s owner, hedge-fund billionaire David Tepper, fired Rivera. But Rivera said it won’t be on his mind when he coaches Sunday.
“There’s no reason to be bitter,” Rivera said. “I did the best I could, and when it was time to move on, David Tepper treated me with tremendous dignity and respect. He really did. He gave me an opportunity to say goodbye [at a farewell news conference], and I really appreciated that. … If there is anything, it’s just missing the folks and the friends we had in Charlotte.”
In his return, Rivera said he’s trying to “stick to the mantra that this is a business trip.” He said he didn’t anticipate being emotional during the game, such as walking to the visitor’s locker room at Bank of America Stadium or facing Newton or any of the 13 other players he coached who remain on the active roster. And while he cares deeply about the city, which helped his family when their house burned down in 2015 and supported him during his cancer battle last season, he said his wife, Stephanie, will “do all the visiting for us and tell everybody that I said my best.”
Yet on the field Sunday, it may be difficult not to think about the long, improbable road Newton and Rivera have taken to this matchup. One of Rivera’s favorite memories as Panthers coach was flying to Atlanta to meet Newton’s family before selecting him in the draft. Rivera said their ups and downs, particularly the Super Bowl loss, helped motivate him not to take a year off after Carolina fired him.
“I love the challenge of [chasing a championship],” he said, adding, “That's the peak. It's the pinnacle of what we do. And it's why we do it.”
Rivera: ‘Optimism’ around Thomas
Five players did not participate in Wednesday’s practice for Washington: offensive lineman Saahdiq Charles (illness), cornerback Kendall Fuller (knee), wide receiver Curtis Samuel (groin), tight end Ricky Seals-Jones (hip) and cornerback Benjamin St-Juste (concussion).
Five were limited: right tackle Sam Cosmi (ankle), running back Antonio Gibson (shin), McLaurin (shoulder), tight end Sammis Reyes (hip) and right guard Brandon Scherff (knee).
Tight end Logan Thomas (hamstring) and linebacker Jared Norris (shoulder) worked on the side field.
“There’s still optimism,” Rivera said of Thomas’s prospects to play Sunday.