It seems like it’s been months since then, but it was only last Tuesday that the Panthers announced they had fired head coach Ron Rivera. Instantly, Rivera became a hot name for the Cowboys to go out and hire if (when) they move on from Jason Garrett. On Sunday, NFL insider Jason La Canfora reported that while Rivera’s two preferred landing spots would be the Chargers and Bears, but “some NFL executives believe Rivera would be a fit with the Cowboys as well.”
How exactly would the recently fired coach fit in Dallas, both from a philosophical and schematic perspective? It’s hard to tell given how little we know about Jerry and Stephen Jones’ preferences when it comes to X’s and O’s, and considering the unprecedented imprint that Garrett himself has obtained over this roster in its construction.
The first thing that would make Rivera a good fit in Dallas is his proven record of success. A former linebacker for Mike Ditka’s Bears, Rivera won a ring as part of the lauded ‘85 Bears, which featured Buddy Ryan’s vicious 46 defense. After retiring, Rivera quickly became a fast-rising assistant coach, running the Bears defense from 2004 to 2006 under Lovie Smith and nearly winning a Super Bowl in his final year there.
He then spent four years with the Chargers before the Panthers hired him as their head coach. In Carolina, Rivera took over a team that had just gone 2-14 the year before and spent their first overall draft pick on Cam Newton. Tasked with rebuilding the franchise and also developing the Heisman-winning stud from Auburn, Rivera was travelling a tough road, especially considering that every other team in their division had double-digit wins the year before.
That didn’t deter Rivera, though, who brought his strong defensive acumen and penchant for getting the best out of his players to a team mostly bereft of talent. After going 13-19 in his first two years, Rivera’s Panthers took the next step in 2013, going 12-4 and winning the division. This ended up being the first of three consecutive division titles for the Panthers, but an exodus of talent without viable replacements and injuries to stars Newton and Luke Kuechly led to a 6-10 campaign in 2016.
Nevertheless, Carolina rebounded in 2017 by going 11-5 and making the playoffs as a Wild Card team before the division rival Saints bounced them out. Significant injuries to Newton would dash the Panthers’ next two seasons leading to Rivera’s early ousting this year.
The most notable part of Rivera’s tenure in Carolina, though, was the 2015 season. That year, they went 15-1 and reached the Super Bowl, only to be bested by Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Jonathan Stewart was the team’s lead running back and their top receivers were Ted Ginn, Jerricho Cotchery, Philly Brown, and rookie Devin Funchess. Even so, Newton put up enough points to win the MVP award and Carolina had their best season in franchise history.
Again, Rivera has a history of getting the most out of his players, even in situations where top players are out with injury. For example, this year Rivera started out 5-1 with Kyle Allen as his starting quarterback before the inexperienced passer succumbed to opposing defenses.
Rivera’s kind of passion, accountability, and intensity could be exactly what this team needs after a season in which they’ve routinely struggled to play a full four quarters. The Cowboys’ 2019 roster is widely considered to be one of the most talented groups in the league, so imagine what Rivera could do with them in 2020.
From a scheme perspective, Rivera could keep Kellen Moore in place. For those who think Kellen Moore has been handcuffed in his play-calling by Garrett, Rivera would likely give more autonomy to Moore and potentially lead to a more aggressive offensive approach.
Speaking of aggression, Rivera would bring that to the team as well, especially on defense. While he cut his teeth in the blitz-heavy 4-3 scheme of Jim Johnson that Sean McDermott now runs in Buffalo, Rivera also heavily altered his defense to incorporate more 3-4 elements this year due to changing personnel. Still, Rivera’s desire to get after the quarterback remains the same; in 2018, Rivera’s defense ranked fifth in blitz percentage, and while it’s dropped a bit this year with the slight change in scheme, Carolina currently ranks second in the league in sacks.
Aside from the aggressive and adaptive style Rivera would bring to the defense, he’s also known for being very aggressive on fourth downs, earning him the nickname Riverboat Ron. This would be a stark departure from Garrett, who rarely goes for it. Additionally, Rivera’s exposure to analytics under new Panthers owner David Tepper might make him more open to integrating those methods into game management techniques, another stark departure from Garrett.
At the end of the day, though, it all comes down to how well Rivera would work with the Joneses. In Carolina, Rivera had a front office who rarely spent the big dollars to retain top players, and it led to guys like Steve Smith and Josh Norman leaving, but in Dallas he’d have a front office that’s already shown they’re committed to keeping their core intact. If Rivera can strike up a positive, mutually beneficial relationship with them, he could be the home run hire that Twitter thinks he is.