SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Egos can be fragile in the NFL. For many players it’s about self-esteem and self-worth. It’s part of the reason Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton celebrates touchdowns with his “Superman” alter ego and one reason wide receiver Antonio Brown no longer is in Pittsburgh.
When egos are bruised, players sometimes sulk or complain in the media. If it involves contract negotiations, they sometimes hold out or are traded or released.
Coaches have egos, too. And when Carolina defensive coordinator Eric Washington lost defensive playcalling duties to head coach Ron Rivera late last season, he did it without showing one.
Washington treated it like a halftime adjustment. Instead of taking it as a demotion, he took it as a way to learn and improve.
Rivera has decided to continue calling the plays this season, and Washington has taken Rivera's decision the same way.
“Eric has a tremendous ego, but Eric also knows as I’ve always thought about myself [as] I’m one of the best linebackers coaches in the league,” Rivera said. “Well, Eric is one of the best defensive line coaches. He knows that. He knows he’s got to develop the rest of his coaching game.
“This is a chance for him to learn. He knows that and he’s smart enough and confident enough in his own abilities to put [egos] aside.”
Washington and Rivera working together with a common goal is a big reason the Panthers have a chance to make a big jump defensively and return to being a playoff-caliber team.
With Newton on the fast track in recovery from another shoulder surgery and with arguably more dynamic weapons around him than ever, returning the defense to top-10 form could be the key to Carolina’s success.
But it starts with Washington and Rivera being on the same page, and that starts with putting egos aside.
“I’ve known Ron a long time,” Washington said. “I have a lot of confidence in what he brings to the table. Now we’re focused on making sure our football team is moving in the right direction during this process.”
That’s one reason Irvin sees potential for the Panthers to do what Seattle did in 2013 when he was a member of the Super Bowl champion Seahawks, who led the NFL in total defense and scoring defense.
“You’re going to get the same Coach Washington every day,” Irvin said. “Most coaches, you can’t tell them anything. But Coach Washington is always taking advice, taking opinion. When you’ve got that kind of coach, the sky’s the limit."
Washington was upset. The Panthers had given up 10 points to Seattle in the final 3 minutes, 26 seconds in a 30-27 loss that extended their losing streak to three straight last season. The first-year coordinator wanted to know what players learned.
Rivera emerged from the top of the team meeting room stairs, a moment captured on Amazon Prime Video’s “All or Nothing” series.
“I’ll tell you what I learned!” Rivera said tersely. “Listening and watching, no accountability. No accountability! That’s something that is missing on this defensive unit that used to happen a lot more than it is now.”
A week later, the Panthers lost 24-17 to Tampa Bay. The next day, Rivera fired two defensive assistants and announced he would handle playcalling instead of Washington.
“It is humbling when a guy comes into your office and says, ‘Let’s talk about this. That doesn’t work. Think about that?’" Rivera recalled. “Eric is able to put it aside and continue to work.”
Humble is a word that defines Washington, outside linebacker/end Mario Addison said.
“Eric is a phenomenal coach,” Addison added. “We all can learn. We all can learn from each other. Coach Rivera kind of took over to teach him the ropes and teach him to be a better coach ... and it worked out for the best.”
Opponents averaged only 19 points against Carolina in the final four games with Rivera calling plays; they had averaged 25.5 in the first 12 games. The New Orleans Saints, who finished second in the NFL in scoring with 32.9 points a game, scored a total of 26 against the Panthers in two meetings in the final three weeks of the season.
It wasn’t enough to salvage a season that began 6-2, but it showed promise for the future. Early in the offseason, Rivera announced he would continue the playcalling in 2019 and move toward more odd-man fronts similar to those he ran as the defensive coordinator in San Diego from 2008 to 2010.
“I mean, everyone has their perspective on how they will respond,” Washington said. “I don’t view what we’re doing now as someone doing my job. I have a responsibility that is essentially the same as it was when I was promoted. There have been some modifications with that.”
There was a moment during the offseason, after the Panthers signed McCoy and drafted Florida State edge rusher Brian Burns in the first round, when Washington thought, “Wow! This looks pretty good!’"
One of the Panthers' biggest issues last season was the lack of a pass rush. Carolina finished 27th in the NFL in sacks. Older players lacked the speed they had shown earlier in their careers.
“During the second phase of the offseason when we got on the field and started working with the adjustment [to a 3-4], you saw the speed,” Washington said. “That was a real positive.”
Rivera doesn’t consider what he did with Washington much different than what he did with Sean McDermott, Carolina’s defensive coordinator from 2011 to 2016.
The difference is McDermott had experience coaching many positions and had time to build his staff when Rivera became a first-time head coach. When McDermott was named the head coach at Buffalo in 2017, new coordinator Steve Wilks inherited a veteran staff.
When Wilks was named the head coach at Arizona in 2018, he took linebackers coach Al Holcomb with him to be his coordinator.
“Eric started from scratch,” Rivera said. “Everybody he had was in a new position. So it was one of those things when he and I sat down and talked, I said, ‘I’m just here to work with you and coach you up and help you.’ I did the same thing with Sean, except I didn’t step in and take over the playcalling.”
Irvin didn’t hesitate when asked what signing McCoy meant to this unit.
“You seen my tweet?” he asked.
The tweet said, “Ahhhhh s---!!!!!” followed by four sets of clapping hands.
“I was so happy,” Irvin said. “That’s a big addition for us. People can talk and say what they want to say, but the guy has a lot left in the tank. It’s right now. We’re not waiting for two or three years down the line.”
Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney have given Washington a lot to work with by adding Irvin and McCoy to a unit that already included Pro Bowl lineman Kawann Short, Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly, Pro Bowl safety Eric Reid and linebacker Shaq Thompson.
“The front seven is stacked,” running back Christian McCaffrey said. “It definitely is a lot of force to be reckoned with in practice. I’m just excited we don’t have to go against them on Sundays because they really are a special group.”
The addition of free safety Tre Boston on Thursday strengthened this unit even more.
“At the end of the day, everybody has got the same goal, and that’s to be successful, accomplish your team goals and individual goals and get to the Super Bowl,” Irvin said. “When you have everybody with the same mindset, everybody committed to one another, that can become a scary unit.”
Rivera doesn’t know what it’s like to have playcalling responsibilities taken away, but he knows what it’s like to be fired. Lovie Smith let him go as the defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears after a 29-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI following the 2006 season.
“That was one of the toughest ones on me,” Rivera said. “But I’ll be honest, Lovie Smith was the one I learned a great deal of what I do today from, because he was hard on me.”
One reason Rivera kept Washington instead of firing him was because of what he learned working under Andy Reid in Philadelphia as the linebackers coach from 1999 to 2003.
“If you’re not working with your guy, how can you fire your guy?” Rivera said.
Washington still has goals of again calling the defensive plays in addition to coming up with the game plan each week. The immediate goal is to get the defense back to top-10 form that it was in five of six seasons from 2012 to 2017, including second in 2013.
“At the end of the day, what people don’t realize or what they may not be privy to is the trust that we have for one another,” Washington said of himself and Rivera. “Our relationship is bigger than adjustments we need to make relative to my responsibility or his involvement. When you have that, you can do what you need to do.”