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Memories of '85 Bears help Ron Rivera keep Panthers shuffling toward unbeaten season

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera was sleeping when many of his 1985 Chicago Bears teammates were taping the iconic “Super Bowl Shuffle."

It was shot the morning after the team returned around 4:30 a.m. from a Monday night game in Miami, where an undefeated 12-0 start ended with a 38-24 loss.

Rivera was more focused on rest and getting rid of the bitter taste of losing than dancing and rapping with his teammates.

“Yes, I was sleeping," recalled Rivera, a backup linebacker for the Bears that season. “It was our only loss ... it was a tough pill."

Rivera, 53, learned a lot from that loss, a game in which the Bears were heavy favorites against an 8-4 Dolphins team.

He learned a lot from that season, things he he hopes will help his 8-0 Panthers -- who have won 12 consecutive games dating back to last season -- stay focused against underdogs such as the 2-6 Titans on Sunday.

People who knew Rivera back in ’85 aren’t surprised he’s in this position. They saw then that he had the qualities to be a successful coach.

They believe those qualities will help the fifth-year coach keep the Panthers from filming a “Super Bowl Shuffle" before they’ve won a Super Bowl.

“You’ve got to keep everything in perspective," former Bears coach and current ESPN analyst Mike Ditka said. “He’ll have his players better prepared for those roadblocks than I did.

“Because I felt at that point nobody could beat us. I really did. And we beat ourselves to a degree."

Buccaneers defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, a starting cornerback for the ’85 Bears, agreed.

“I don’t think Ron will panic if something slips here over the next eight weeks," he said. “He understands he has a good team. He knows how to ride the highs and lows of an NFL season, even when you get on a winning streak.

“He’ll handle it in the right way if they hit a bump in the road and he’ll get through it."

Frazier was one of the first to tell Rivera to pursue coaching after his playing days.

Rivera didn’t immediately heed that advice, taking a job as an analyst for WGN-TV in Chicago in 1993. It wasn’t until 1996 that Rivera began his path as the defense quality-control coach for the Bears.

“I still tease him today and say, ‘See, I knew what I was talking about,’ " Frazier said.

The first word Ditka and Frazier used when describing Rivera as a player is smart.

“He was one of the smartest guys on our football team and he had a lot of great leadership qualities," Ditka said. “Now we had a lot of leaders on that team, but but he was a guy who could always put people in the right place."

Rivera was a student of the game, particularly when it came to defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan’s “46 defense" that was one of the most innovative and complicated of its time.

The defense was centered on pressuring the quarterback, a big part of Carolina’s 4-3 scheme under Rivera.

“He saw the game not only from an Xs and Os standpoint, but also how it related to players themselves," Frazier said. “There are a lot of bright guys. It’s, can you relate the information to Xs and Os to motivate the players?

“He could not only understand the scheme, but communicate the scheme."

Rivera has a reputation for being a players’ coach because he relates to what players go through on a daily basis.

That’s over-simplifying it, according to Ditka.

“He’s a coach," Ditka said. “He’s an owner’s coach, he’s a player’s coach, he’s a fan’s coach. He’s respected by everybody. The players like him because he’s fair. He’s played the game, he understands the game, and they know what he’s going to expect of them.

“They put it out. That’s why Carolina is doing so good right now."

Carolina also is succeeding because Rivera understands how to deal with characters. He learned that from the ‘85 Bears, a team that included the headband-wearing quarterback Jim McMahon and defensive tackle/fullback wannabe William “The Refrigerator" Perry.

“We had a lot of personalities on our team," Frazier said with a laugh. “Ron was a pretty straight shooter. Guys appreciated that. ... He was the kind of guy people gravitated to when things aren’t going well."

Ditka called Rivera a “common sense" player.

“He kind of kept everything under control," Ditka said. “I really believe that. We had a wild bunch, now. They could turn it loose."

The Panthers don’t have anybody with a reputation as wild as McMahon’s, but they do have a cast of characters, including quarterback Cam “Superman" Newton and cornerback Josh “Batman" Norman.

“We have some characters that would most certainly equal up to what we had [in Chicago]," Rivera said.

But Rivera has to keep those personalities in check more than Ditka did because of today’s social media.

Rivera is more interested in the chemistry his personalities have developed, something that also happened with the ‘85 Bears.

He’s more interested in how those personalities have become leaders who will keep the Panthers from overlooking opponents now that they have become a big target like the ’85 Bears were.

“We have to keep the focus and we do have to keep it on one day at a time," Rivera said. “That’s the message I hope our guys stay with."

That’s the message Rivera learned with the ’85 Bears, who bounced back from that loss to the Dolphins to cap an 18-1 season with a 46-10 victory over the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

“The things that I share mostly [from that year] are pretty much the messages we got from Coach Ditka -- about taking ownership, about being accountable, about paying attention to the details, about being put on the pedestal and being careful," Rivera said.

“Because the truth of the matter is the higher you go up, the farther you fall."