Give Rivera credit for seeking out Madden

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Give Ron Rivera credit. He doesn't think he's too smart to learn and grow as a head coach. He doesn't have an ego that prevents him from seeking out the advice of others in helping to shape his philosophy.

Such was the case this past spring. The Carolina Panthers coach was on a trip visiting his parents on the West Coast when he decided to give legendary coach John Madden a call and let him know he was in the neighborhood.

Rivera was thinking he could get a few minutes of Madden's insight into the direction his team was headed over a cup of coffee.

"Coach Madden took it a step further,'' Rivera recalled on Wednesday. "He evaluated us and looked at some things. He was very gracious and very critical of certain things.''

When Rivera says Madden evaluated, he doesn't mean the Hall of Fame coach shared his thoughts from what he'd seen of the Panthers on television. Madden actually broke down film before Rivera arrived.

"Oh, yeah,'' Rivera said with a laugh. "He can't help himself.''

One thing stood out more than anything during the critique.

"He was a little bit concerned about us giving the ball a little bit too much to the quarterback,'' Rivera said. "I took every word he said.''

And acted.

Cam Newton averaged 7.9 carries and 45.2 yards a game rushing the past two seasons. He's averaging 6.9 carries for 31.4 yards this season. That may not sound like a huge decrease, but over the course of the season that's about 220 yards of less pounding on the quarterback.

The reduction means Rivera and new offensive coordinator Mike Shula have been successful in implementing a more traditional running game that doesn't depend on Newton being the leader. And it means Newton is taking far fewer hits.

"We can do so much with him,'' Rivera said. "We just choose to do it on a limited basis right now.''

But there are times when Newton's ability to run comes into play regardless of what anybody wants. Such was the case during Sunday's 34-10 victory over Atlanta when Newton appeared buried in a sea of defenders.

He somehow escaped and found wide receiver Steve Smith for a 23-yard completion. The difference this year is that Newton got rid of the ball instead of keeping it.

"Houdini,'' Rivera said when reminded of the play.

That's the same thing Rivera used to say when facing Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders. But the Panthers don't want Newton to be like Sanders. Not with the rate quarterbacks are being injured.

"When you have a guy like Cam, you want to always have the threat for him to run the football and have defenses have to account for that,'' Shula said. "But you don't want him to be the lead rusher, or his career is not going to be very long.''

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who will face the Panthers on Sunday at Candlestick Park, actually has increased his carries from 4.8 in 2012 to 6.1 this season.

In many ways, Newton and Kaepernick are the same player, both big and strong with explosive speed. The Panthers just choose to use Newton less as a runner for the sake of his long-term health, even though Newton reminds, "From what I remember, Tom Brady tore his ACL in the pocket.''

Regardless, Newton has become more efficient in terms of completion percentage (64.4) and passer rating (93.1). He has grown as a quarterback in much the way Rivera has grown as a head coach.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher recently noted how Rivera was given time to grow into his role. Rivera's willingness to gamble on fourth-and-1 on an almost regular basis, when coming into the season he ranked near the bottom of the league in that category, is a prime example. The aggressiveness has been integral to Carolina winning four straight games and five of the last six.

But the core that made Rivera who he is hasn't changed, and that too was part of the message from Madden. Cowher and former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka also reiterated that as Rivera sought to improve during the offseason.

"One of the things [Cowher] told me was, 'Ron, with the way you finished [2012 with four straight wins], stick with it. It's going to turn. Trust me. Don't change who you are in terms of your principles and what you believe,''' Rivera said.

"The insight that you learn from these people is tremendous. They all came around to say one thing: be true to who you are. So I've tried to do that. I am a better coach.''

And the Panthers are a better team for it.