Rivera borrowed Ditka speech to set tone

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ron Rivera was surrounded by more than 90 attentive faces, most of which he hadn't gotten to know. He wanted the message to be strong, so he reached into his memory bank for a speech one of his former coaches told a new team.

He started almost verbatim.

"I've got good news and bad news,'' Rivera said the first time he addressed players as the head coach of the Carolina Panthers in 2011. "The good news is we're going to the Super Bowl. The bad news is not all of us are going to be with us when we get there.''

Rivera wanted to make sure the players, many coming off a 2-14 season under lame-duck coach John Fox, understood how hard it would be to make the final 53-man roster.

And he wanted to let them know the reward for their hard work would be something special.

"I'd like to believe it was laid Day 1,'' Rivera said of the foundation that has Carolina 10-4 heading into Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints (10-4) that likely will determine the NFC South champion and a first-round playoff bye.

"I was trying to get the message to the players we can win the Super Bowl, we're going to win a Super Bowl. I really believe that message Day 1 was important.''

It was important to Rivera the first time he heard it from coach Mike Ditka as a rookie linebacker in 1984. A year later, the Chicago Bears had arguably the NFL's single-best season behind the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins.

With the league's best scoring defense and an offense anchored by Hall of Famer Walter Payton, the Bears culminated an 18-1 season with a 46-10 victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX.

"It's one of those things, when I think back for him to say it and put it the way he did and be as sincere as he was when he said it, it made an impact on all of us,'' Rivera said.

The words have made a difference in Carolina, too.

"Whenever anybody says that with that kind of conviction, it's a little boost in your belief,'' left tackle Jordan Gross said. "Somebody has got to win it. Why not us?''

Rivera wasn't looking past Sunday's game at Bank of America Stadium when bringing up that moment. He was looking at what, upon reflection, helped put the Panthers in position to play a game of this magnitude coming off seasons of 6-10 and 7-9.

He was paying homage to a coach who has been one of the biggest influences in his career.

"It's interesting,'' Rivera said. "When I started playing the game I played because I wanted to be the best of my abilities. I think I did the best I could.

"As a coach when I started, I wanted to be the best. The only way to be the best is to reach the pinnacle. Not just to be a head coach, but to be a winning head coach.''

Ditka instilled that in him.

Fiery sideline rants aside, you can see a lot of Ditka in Rivera. Most of it has to do with the way he relates to his players, the way he treats everybody the same -- with respect and dignity.

"One thing I try to do with our players, I never ask them to do something I was never able to do as a player,'' Rivera said. "I got that from coach Ditka. He used to always ask us to do what he used to as a player. Some of the s--- he did was unbelievable, but he asked.

"One thing he told me was to know your abilities and play to your strengths. He knew I wasn't a blazer, but he knew I was smart, physical and I played with my hands and had some good, natural feel for the game.''

Rivera does the same thing. Perhaps that's why the team hasn't missed a beat when a starter has been injured. Nobody has been asked to do more than he can do, and the game plan is designed around taking advantage of strengths.

Rivera also is like Ditka in that he is loyal to his players, almost to a fault.

"He's a player's coach,'' cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "That's key to it, man. He respects everybody and he will go to battle for all of us. If somebody is talking bad about us, he's always taking the blame.

"Like a couple of years ago, certain [losses] weren't his fault, but he was always taking the blame for it. He put that on his shoulders. I just respect that as a person and a man.''

The team's work ethic has become a reflection of Rivera. Twenty to 25 players typically stay after practice on Wednesdays and Thursdays to work extra on their own, whether it's catching more balls or refining technique.

That showed up at the end of the past two seasons as the Panthers won four of their final six in 2011 and five of their last six in 2012 when they had nothing to play for other than pride.

"Since Coach Rivera got here, guys have worked hard always and have been tough and competed,'' Gross said. "That's why we won games at the end of both of those seasons, because we were still trying harder than other teams that weren't in the playoff mix.

"We've had the same drive every year. We've just gotten better at our jobs this year.''

That's what Sunday's game represents to the Panthers.

"It's a bit of a culmination of two and a half years of work to be in a position where we can prove we're a legitimate contender,'' Gross said.

Rivera instilled that in his players just like Ditka instilled it in him, and it began on Day 1 with a simple speech.

"He set the tone early,'' Munnerlyn said. "His dream is to win the Super Bowl. He said we're going to win it here. He's making us buy into it.''