Panthers coach Ron Rivera to players: 'Keep your personality'

"It's something I kind of picked up from being around Coach [Mike] Ditka," said Panthers coach Ron Rivera, a linebacker under Ditka with the Chicago Bears from 1984-92. "He let us have our personality shine."

 AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There's a reason Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera doesn't mind his star quarterback dancing after touchdowns or his star cornerback riding an imaginary horse after returning an interception for a score.

There's a reason Rivera allows his players to practice their dance moves during warm-ups and have fun on social media.

It's a part of the chemistry that has helped the Panthers to an NFL-best 11-0 record this season and league-best 15 consecutive regular-season wins heading into Sunday's game at New Orleans.

So the brighter the spotlight shines on his players, the more Rivera reminds them to "keep your personality."

"It's something I kind of picked up from being around Coach [Mike] Ditka," said Rivera, a linebacker under Ditka with the Chicago Bears from 1984-92. "He let us have our personality shine."

The 1985 Bears had more personalities than most, from headband-wearing quarterback Jim McMahon to defensive tackle Williams "The Refrigerator" Perry.

The "Super Bowl Shuffle" music video taped during the regular season epitomized those characters. That team had fun on and off the field.

So do the Panthers.

Rivera has learned to appreciate that more now than he did during his first couple of years as a head coach.

"I'll use Josh Norman as an example," he said of his star cornerback. "When Josh first got here, he was just as flamboyant as he [is now], and I think to a degree we tried to get him to fall in line too much. He lost that personality and the bravado as to who he is.

"There's a great saying: Respect your opponent, but believe in yourself. If you start worrying too much about that side of things and doing things completely the right way, you lose that little edge."

Quarterback Cam Newton is Carolina's biggest character, from the way he playfully races rookie wide receiver Devin Funchess to the football at the start of each practice to his dabbin' and "Superman" celebrations.

"He loves competing, he loves game day and he loves having fun," Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "He wants everybody else to have as much fun [as him], including not just his teammates and coaches, but including the fans.

"You see him on game day. He lights up. He's got a lot of energy. You see him when he scores a touchdown. It's all that stuff combined. It's natural. It's not phony."

Rivera never has tried to change that, even though Newton sometimes draws more attention to himself than Rivera might like with non-football antics.

"The one thing I'll say about Coach is, he's been consistent throughout his time here," center Ryan Kalil said. "Cam's one of the biggest personalities I've ever been around, and he's been the same throughout his time here."

That approach has helped create a locker room atmosphere that is basically the same now as it was last season, when the Panthers were 3-8-1.

Winning just amplifies everything.

"It's a fun locker room, but more so, it's fun because everybody in this locker room has their eyes on the goal and how special this opportunity is," Kalil said. "When you do that and you win, you can do those other things."

Norman is the first to admit his transformation into one of the leagues' best cornerbacks began when Rivera unleashed him -- and his personality -- last season.

"I wasn't myself," he said. "They let me go. They let me be free, and all this started."