Ron Rivera's T-shirt game is strong, even if playoff chances are weak

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera often dips into his locker room drawer for one of his countless custom-made T-shirts, which usually feature a message supporting a player, charity or special cause, to wear to a news conference.

On Friday, he wore one supporting a more personal cause: Carolina's playoff chances.

Across the front of Rivera's gray shirt was a "Riverboat Ron" hat -- more on that later -- followed by "5%? LET'S RIDE."

The message made light of Rivera's saying earlier in the week that the Panthers (6-7) have a 5 percent chance to make the playoffs. Carolina, which is in the midst of a five-game losing streak, plays host to the New Orleans Saints (11-2) on Monday (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).

But there is nothing light about Rivera using that 5 percent as motivation for a team looking for anything to turn around a season that has gone south since a 6-2 start.

Told the odds went up to 9 or 10 percent with Minnesota's (6-6-1) loss to Seattle on Monday night, Rivera smiled and said, "Oh! That's a positive."

Rivera hasn't worn the special T-shirts as often during this losing streak as he did the first eight games, when things were going well. The shirts often celebrate something positive, and not much positive has happened lately.

But that Carolina still has a chance at a wild-card spot seemed like a worthy reason to break out a new shirt.

"As you go forward, it's the challenge, what's in front of you, what it means," Rivera said. "I think they understand. ... We'll see. That's why we play the game."

Rivera began wearing what one might call his own line of T-shirts before the 2015 season in which Carolina went an NFL-best 15-1 during the regular season and reached Super Bowl 50.

During a visit with Felix Sabates to Chip Ganassi Racing to give a motivational speech, Rivera told the NASCAR team it was important to "Control Your APE." APE is an acronym for Attitude, Preparation and Effort.

Sabates, a good friend of Rivera's and a part owner of the race team, had "Control Your APE" T-shirts made for his employees and Rivera.

Rivera then had enough shirts made for every member of the Panthers. "The players loved it," he said.

Rivera's wife, Stephanie, took it to another level. She suggested taking the "Riverboat Ron" logo that became popular in 2013, when Rivera's gambles on fourth down at Minnesota turned a 1-3 start into a 12-4 season, and using it on T-shirts to raise money for the humane society.

From there, the T-shirts took off.

"I've got a whole bunch of them in my locker," Rivera said. "I don't have a count. I've started getting T-shirts from people on the outside asking me to wear one to help with their causes."

Earlier this season, after quarterback Cam Newton was photographed kissing a pylon after tripping over it while celebrating a touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen, Rivera came out with a T-shirt of the same image.

When outside linebacker Thomas Davis returned from a four-game suspension this season, Rivera wore a T-shirt that read, "I'm Back," with a familiar image of Davis below the words.

Rivera wore another T-shirt encouraging people to vote in the most recent election and another promoting relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Florence, which devastated both Carolinas earlier this season.

One of the funniest shirts came out when the Panthers were on a roll offensively. There was a "Wassup Baby" T-shirt featuring an image of offensive coordinator Norv Turner wearing dark sunglasses.

Newton seemed to take great pleasure beating Rivera to the punch and introducing it first at his weekly Wednesday news conference.

"I figured I could get just as much exposure for the T-shirt for Coach Rivera if I was wearing one, too," Newton said. "He says I got the hat plug; he has the shirt plug. I think I just got a shirt plug, too."

Newton was referring to his custom-made hats that have gotten him a lot of publicity the past three years. Rivera actually wore a T-shirt making light of one of those, too, after Newton came out with a brimless hat.

One of the better T-shirts last season came out after Newton, wired for sound in a game against Green Bay, got into an exchange with Packers linebacker Clay Matthews.

Matthews, thinking he knew a play to rookie running back Christian McCaffrey was coming from something he saw on film, shouted, "It's that wheel route. It's that wheel route."

Newton responded, "You've been watching film, huh?"

Matthews said, "Yeah!"

"That's cool. Watch this," Newton barked back before hitting McCaffrey for a touchdown on a slant route.

The next week Rivera had a blue T-shirt that read, "You've been watching film, huh? That's cool. WATCH THIS!"

If it gets said one day, it likely will be on a T-shirt the next. The biggest exception came when Rivera said "this s--- happens" after a 52-21 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a Thursday night game.

There was no T-shirt for that one. Rivera almost blushed when asked why there wasn't.

Rivera calls the T-shirts his platform. Just don't ask him who makes them.

"There's a group of elves that do it," he said earlier this season. "It's a secret. I'm serious. I've been sworn to secrecy. They've asked me not to talk about it."

Asked if they were in Bank of America Stadium, Rivera smiled and said, "I will say this much. They're in the vicinity."