Ron Rivera knows a little bit about competitors.
The former Chicago Bears linebacker got to know another Windy City icon during his time there in the mid-’80s.
“This is a little something I learned from Michael Jordan, when we were in Chicago,” Rivera said the day after his Carolina Panthers rallied to beat the Eagles. “He used to say, ‘Certain guys want the ball when its crunch time. Other people don’t seem to come off the picks the way they’re supposed to.’”
Rivera was reminded of the 30-plus-year-old quote while watching quarterback Cam Newton lead the comeback over Philadelphia.
“I told that to Cam,” he said. “Cam always wants the ball.”
With the Panthers trailing 17-0 at the start of the fourth quarter, Newton approached his coach on the sideline.
“Coach,” Newton said, “put it in my hands. Coach, trust me.”
“He just wants the ball,” Rivera said.
When he got it, the Panthers were suddenly an offense transformed.
Newton, who was 10-of-18 for 82 yards up until that point in the game, ran a no-huddle offense implemented by coordinator Norv Turner at halftime, completed his first five passes. Later, he completed seven in a row.
When the dust cleared, Newton had completed 15 fourth-quarter passes out of 21 attempts for 187 yards and two touchdowns.
The outburst included a 16-yard completion to D.J. Moore on one third down, a 22-yarder to Christian McCaffery on another, and a 35-yard pass to Torrey Smith on fourth-and-10 just before the two-minute warning. With the game in the balance on that play, Newton took a hit on the play as he released the ball.
“To create a little more time for Torrey to make the cut,” Rivera said. “For him to stand tall, take the hit and finish the delivery, that’s an outstanding play. It harkens back to 2013, when he stood tall in the pocket as New Orleans was running a blitz against him, he throws a touchdown to win the game. That play is etched in my mind — just the fact that he’s standing tall. As their safety is just about to hit him, he releases it.”
It was Newton’s 15th career fourth-quarter comeback, more than current stars Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck, as well as Hall of Famers Steve Young, Jack Kemp and Otto Graham.
“He gets overlooked because of his style of play,” Rivera said. “It’s not a prolific style. He runs the ball extremely well. He’s not a pure, pure pocket passer, although there are elements of his game where he plays well from the pocket. I think the success he has in fourth-quarter comebacks is a lot about his desire — just wanting to win.”
His desire met a perfect match in Turner’s up-tempo style.
“Going in at halftime, we talked about some of the things we needed to correct on the offensive side,” Rivera said. “Norv came in and talked about the things he wanted to do, sticking with some of the things he had on the game plan and changing a couple things — going to the hurry-up offense — things he decided were things that could bring some energy.”
It brought energy, and also a rhythm that’s been missing from the Panthers’ offense.
“Once they started, he as a play caller just rolled it off. Cam as quarterback out there handled it very, very well,” Rivera said. “When you get into a rhythm, it really helps the offensive movement. Ball control is a rhythm. A lot of play callers will tell you that. Once you get in rhythm, get into the flow, you can rattle it off.”
Despite turning up the tempo, Newton didn’t feel pressure. After all, the ball was where it belonged — in his hands.
“Being in hurry-up doesn’t mean panic. It doesn’t mean rushing. It doesn’t mean mayhem,” he said. “It’s just controlled tempo. We’re in control of that.”
Newton was also driven by the loss to Washington a week before, when a potential game-winning drive was stopped just short of the end zone.
“Last week — well, I don’t always do good at losing — I just took that one personally. Extremely personally,” he said. “We had the opportunity to win. I told myself preparing all week, if we ever get in that position again, I’d better hold up my end of the bargain. There’s a lot of guys trusting me in that locker room — a lot of people depending on me to put this team in the best situation. I could’ve done better last week. This week, we were in the same situation. I didn’t want to let them down.”
And when it came time to win or lose, Newton was ready to get the ball, just like Jordan described.