NFL

Ron Rivera’s History Suggests The Panthers Should Pursue Perfection

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Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has one of the most important decisions of his head coaching career ahead of him.

Should he play his stars to try and achieve a perfect season or get them some rest in the final two weeks in order to be completely healthy and in the best position possible for a Super Bowl run?

With Sunday’s 38-35 victory over the New York Giants, the Panthers became just the fourth team in the Super Bowl era to begin a season 14-0.  Two games separate Carolina from history, divisional matchups at Atlanta before returning home against Tampa Bay.

“These last two games are division opponents, and we’ll be in a hostile environment in Atlanta,” Panthers MVP frontrunner Cam Newton said. “And we’ve got a tricky week with Christmas. We just have to find a way to keep moving ahead and make sure we stay on the side of the pendulum.”

Anyone would agree that winning a Super Bowl takes precedence over a perfect regular season, but resting starters doesn’t guarantee postseason success.  Some would say “shutting it down” can do more damage than good.

A locker room, no matter how cohesive it seems has 53 different egos.  If some players are deemed “too important” to play in meaningless football games, then the feelings of others might be hurt.  Not to mention those other players who may have backup and dual roles on special teams will have to be forced to play more snaps.  That could weaken another unit and increase the chances for more injuries.

There’s also the rust factor.  With a first-round bye looming, certain Panthers starters would have up to three weeks off from their last meaningful game.  That’s a great way to get rusty and potentially soft, which is the antithesis of what Rivera’s team is all about.

For those of us who would like to see history, the Arizona Cardinals are helping with their part.  Arizona is 12-2 and pushing the Panthers for at least another week as Carolina needs to win one more game to clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

“Our biggest focus is a game with Atlanta and getting home field throughout,” Rivera told reporters on Monday.

Regardless of whether they go all out next week against the Falcons, they will be getting everyone’s best shot.

“We would definitely like to take them down,” Falcons wide receiver and legendary return man Devin Hester said after the team’s 23-17 victory over Jacksonville.  “They’re a really great team and we want to be the ones to ruin their perfect season and keep ours alive as long as we can.”

“Riverboat Ron’s” history could weigh heavily into his decision.  The former linebacker was on the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl winning team that went 15-1.  Those Bears are considered to be among the greatest teams in NFL history, but that honor would be solely theirs if they had beaten the Miami Dolphins on a Monday night and finished with perfection.

“We enjoyed it,” Rivera recently reflected. “In all honesty, we were very confident. Probably more confident than we should have been. But I also think that was part of the personality of who the football team was.”

Rivera was also an assistant with the 2005 Chicago Bears, who were in a similar position and decided to rest their starters.

“We lost a game (to Carolina),” Rivera explained, “and after the game guys said that they were a little rusty and wish they had played more.  We had the bye week in between so listening to that kind of reminded me and I’ve always kept that in the back of my mind.”

The Panthers have a unique opportunity to be remembered as one of the greatest teams in the history of the NFL.  With an ultra-competitive group of guys as Carolina has, stopping them from competing, or at least competing without your best players can be extremely harmful.

“I think we’ve got good chemistry,” Rivera said. “That’s one thing we’ve worked to build.”

If you ask any coach on any level about any end of season accomplishments, they’ll usually give a cliche answer about one day or game at a time.  In Rivera’s situation, it’s absolutely true.

“The truth is, we have to keep the focus,” Rivera said. “We have to keep it one-game-at-a-time. I’m hoping that’s what the message is.”

It’s never been a choice between a perfect regular season and a Super Bowl.  Those two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  The Panthers have an opportunity to achieve greatness, and playing in fear of an injury, or anything else is not what this team is about.

The one thing that we do know is that they’re going to go full speed ahead against Atlanta on Sunday, and assuming they win and move to 15-0, only a home game against Tampa Bay stands between themselves and history.

“When we get to the following week we’ll have to decide, but right now we need to take care of what needs to be done,” Rivera reiterated.

Although their one game at a time approach may be boring for fans and reporters, there’s no good reason to change what they’ve been doing.

How can you improve upon perfection?

Staying perfect.


About Charlie Bernstein

Charlie Bernstein

Charlie Bernstein is the managing football editor for Football Insiders and has covered the NFL for over a decade.  Charlie has hosted drive time radio for NBC and ESPN affiliates in different markets around the country, along with being an NFL correspondent for ESPN Radio and WFAN.  He has been featured on the NFL Network as well as Sirius/XM NFL Radio and has been published on Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated, ESPN as well as numerous other publications.