This was the question Ron Rivera posed to his team in 2011 when he arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina, as the fourth head coach in Carolina Panthers history. And he asked it on day one.
My conversation with Rivera on this topic started last year at Super Bowl XLIX and continued this season at Bank of America stadium, well before the world began tracking the Panthers' almost perfect performance every Sunday. Well before they dominated in the NFC Championship game and advanced to the Super Bowl. And well before I witnessed this "hometown team" infiltrate the island of Manhattan, as a little boy sporting a Panthers jersey threw a football with his father in Central Park (a rare occurrence indeed).
During our conversation, Rivera gave much credit to the Panthers' owner, Jerry Richardson, for establishing the team's culture. However, it was Rivera's responsibility to create a vision to execute successfully. When he started, his team was coming off a tough year--their record was 2-14 prior to his arrival. In terms of vision, Rivera had only one option.
"When I first got here, I was trying to get the players to understand what my vision was in terms of wanting to create a winning team," Rivera said. "So I asked them, 'Do you understand the difference between a dream and a vision?' A dream is what you fantasize about. It's what you hope for, but a vision is what you plan for. You map out and you have a set of goals, and you go out and you execute that plan to achieve your vision."
During his first year as head coach, the Panthers went 6-10 and finished third in the division. His second year, they finished 7-9 and finished second in the division. And following the 2012 season, Rivera was expected to be fired. It was clear something needed to change. So, he changed.
Risk to Relevance
"When you become a first timer in a thing, there's no way you can know everything. You're not gonna have all the answers, and so I had to learn and grow," Rivera said. "My first two years were tough times, and there was a lot of learning that I had to do. And I was on the hot seat when I came into the 2013 season. I understood that and I got it, because at the end of the day, this, what I do, and what most people do, is about productivity. If you don't produce, then it's time to move on, and I understood that. But going into the next season, the 2013 year, I knew that there were some things that I had done that had to be done differently."
Rivera decided to be bolder. He deployed unconventional strategies and, along the way, an appetite and reputation for risk. Where conventional wisdom called for a field goal attempt, the Panthers went for a first down--and got results. After starting the season 1-3, they went 11-1--including a then-franchise record eight-game winning streak--to win the NFC South title and make the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
But stats aside, something greater emerged: a deeper sense of trust between Rivera and his players.
"The first time I did it, the reaction from the players was, "Oh, wow, that's so ... I appreciate it coach, you're showing me that you trust us, you believe in us," Rivera said. "And certain things just started to click. The realization that the simple decision to go for it on fourth down or simple decision to try to score a touchdown as opposed to settle for a field goal ... all of a sudden spoke volumes to the players and the realization that, you know what ... there is something to this, that I had to delve further into it and understand it even better."
That greater understanding also secured Rivera the distinguished honor of 2013 NFL Coach of the Year.
"We had to fight to become relevant in terms of having to play hard and win football games to get people's attention," said Rivera. "I knew if we did that, then we become relevant.
Setting the Standard
Prior to the start of the 2015 season, Rivera told me his vision now is to become the standard. Be the team that others want to emulate.
"Now that we're relevant, people know who we are, we want to be the standard," Rivera said. "We want to be the one that everybody's trying to catch and beat. And so, we now know what our next step is that we have to take, and that is to become the standard to do things--the way people want to copy, so people want to be like us."
As quarterback Cam Newton's touchdown celebration "the dab" has become a bit of a national craze (think women doing it in the middle of grocery store aisles, the elderly dabbin' in nursing homes, and kids in New Jersey building snowmen designed to look like a dabbin' Cam ), I think it's safe to say that people have taken notice.
As the Panthers prepare for what they hope to be their first Super Bowl win in franchise history, Rivera now has a chance to become only the fourth man to win a Super Bowl as both a player and a head coach--but more important, a chance to watch his vision unfold. My message to Rivera: Sometimes dreams do come true.