ASHBURN — Coming up through the coaching ranks as a young assistant in the NFL, Ron Rivera thought about how, if he ever got the opportunity to lead a team, he‘d handle a rookie quarterback.
He studied Andy Reid’s mentoring of Donovan McNabb — how Reid had the then-rookie wait two months, wait until he was sure the quarterback was ready, before putting him under center for his first start.
“I always kind of wondered if that’s what I would do,” Rivera said.
Rivera had every intention of utilizing what he‘d learned from Reid and others. Cam Newton pretty much changed all that.
Rivera started Newton in Week 1 of his rookie 2011 season — and that wasn’t the last time the uber-talented Newton caused Rivera to rethink everything he thought he knew about coaching quarterbacks.
“It was harder than I realized,” Rivera said recently, as the team he coaches now, The Washington Football Team, goes on the road to face Newton and the Carolina Panthers.
Together for eight-plus seasons, Rivera and Newton formed one of the most successful coach-quarterback partnerships in football — with the Panthers 68-55-1 in Newton’s starts, including a Super Bowl appearance after the 2015 season. Sunday will be Newton‘s first start this season after rejoining the Panthers last week.
Newton, Rivera says, shaped “a lot” of what the coach has come to expect from a franchise quarterback — and has influenced what Rivera is now looking for as he searches for a long-term answer in Washington.
At 3-6, Washington would draft in the top 10 if the season ended today. And if Rivera chooses to draft a rookie quarterback after this year, he’ll likely use the lessons he learned from overseeing Newton’s career to shape his next signal-caller.
“Early on, you have to be consistent with him,” Rivera told The Washington Times. “You got to hold him accountable so they understand exactly what’s going to be expected of him. The big part about it is you have to give them every opportunity. Now with Cam, I didn’t think you should wait with him. … To me, a guy like (Newton), who he is, you have to have on the field.
“And what happened was you could see each year, his first two years is he began to capture that confidence from his teammates, that trust from his teammates, so he could show that he is a leader.”
Even now, Rivera lights up when he talks about Newton. He raves about the quarterback’s grasp of the game, noting how impressed he was that Newton already knew the team’s offense when he arrived at training camp — the No. 1 overall pick had been working with a trainer familiar with Carolina’s system.
Rivera called Newton a “tremendous competitor” with a “dominant personality.”
But, Rivera admits, Newton is a “complex individual.” As a first-time coach, Rivera had to learn to guide Newton.
Newton took losses hard — so hard that the quarterback’s attitude would sometimes affect teammates, Rivera said. Over Rivera’s first two seasons, the Panthers lost a lot of games: 10 in the first year, nine in the second.
Rivera didn’t want Newton to get complacent but he had to learn how to cope with losing. Offensive coordinator Scott Turner, who had two stints with the Panthers during Newton’s time, said Rivera worked hard to instill confidence in Newton.
Confidence was never the issue for Newton — the quarterback’s lavish wardrobe says as much — but Turner said Rivera made sure to constantly let Newton know: “This is your team.”
“Cam always knew that coach had his back, at least that that’s the way it felt to me,” Turner said. “I think he did a nice job that way.”
Years of glory followed. The Panthers went 12-4 in 2013 to make the playoffs, snuck back into the postseason at 7-8-1 the following year and Newton won MVP with a historic campaign in 2015. Before there was Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, Newton defined what it meant to be a modern quarterback — a dynamic thrower who could rip it down the field and make game-changing plays with his legs.
Of course, the run eventually hit a wall. Injuries derailed Newton in 2018 and 2019, leading to Rivera’s firing and Newton’s initial exit from the Panthers. Rivera said one of their toughest moments came when he finally convinced Newton to admit his foot was “really hurt” in 2019, leading the Panthers to shut him down. “He didn’t want to quit,” Rivera said.
If Rivera chooses to draft a quarterback this spring — and there’s no guarantee that he will, with stater Taylor Heinicke showing flashes and a robust veteran market expected — he’ll likely take the same approach that went into drafting Newton first overall. Rivera remembers the lengths the Panthers went to when researching Newton and other prospects that year.
Those tactics included talking to his coaches and teammates, going out to dinner and private meetings. In the lead-up to the draft, Rivera flew down to Newton’s home in Georgia to meet with the quarterback and his family.
There’s something different, after all, about a coach getting to choose his quarterback. Rivera, for instance, inherited Dwayne Haskins — the former first-rounder who flamed out of Washington last year. There was value for Rivera getting to have a say in picking Newton.
“I think the hard part is, I watched (Haskins), but I didn’t study him,” Rivera said. “You know what I’m saying? Because we had our quarterbacks (in Carolina). I didn’t expect Cam to again get hurt in 2019, so going into that draft, we had Kyle (Allen) as one of our backups who we liked. And so we watched Dwayne, we saw good things from Dwayne, but we didn’t study him. We didn’t dive into him like we did (for Newton) … We really went out and really had to do a lot of work. I didn’t get to do that with Dwayne.”
But first, Rivera and Newton will go head-to-head.
“There (were) a lot of really cool moments,” Rivera said.