CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Six months ago, Ron Rivera didn't know Cam Newton.
Now his livelihood as a first-time NFL head coach largely depends on him.
When an NFL team bottoms out and is forced to make a coaching change, it's not uncommon to follow up by drafting a quarterback No. 1 overall, as the Carolina Panthers did earlier this offseason. And history teaches us the future success of both men in the NFL is often intertwined.
In other words, if Newton thrives in the NFL, chances are so will Rivera.
|Cam Newton and Ron Rivera became a team at the draft on April 28, for better or worse. (US Presswire)|
Since 1987, a dozen NFL teams have made a coaching change and then acquired a quarterback with the No. 1 pick that same offseason. Of the previous 11 teams, only twice have the quarterback and coach paired up to win a Super Bowl.
The Dallas Cowboys did it.
In 1989, they hired Jimmy Johnson as their new coach and selected Troy Aikman with the first pick in the draft. Although Aikman was 0-11 as a starter his rookie season, he matured quickly and won three Super Bowls, two of those with Johnson and another with Barry Switzer. Johnson and Aikman parlayed their on-field accomplishments into successful broadcasting careers with Fox Sports.
More than a decade later, the New York Giants repeated the feat, hiring Tom Coughlin and making a draft-day trade with San Diego for Eli Manning, the top pick in the draft. Four seasons later Manning found Plaxico Burress in the end zone in the closing minutes to help the Giants end New England's bid for a perfect season in Super Bowl XLII.
Others have come close.
In 1993, the New England Patriots hired Bill Parcells away from TV and added Drew Bledsoe with the No. 1 pick. Three years later they reached Super Bowl XXXI before losing to Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers.
Cincinnati has had some success with Marvin Lewis and Carson Palmer, although they've never quite maximized their potential and that relationship seems headed for divorce.
For the most part, that is the way these relationships end -- without much success.
New coaches who've taken over a team with the worst record in the league have struggled to bounce back, even when given the best quarterback coming out of college.
In 2005, Mike Nolan landed a gig with the San Francisco 49ers, but never finished out his contract largely because Alex Smith never materialized into a star quarterback. The same could be said with Chris Palmer and Tim Couch in Cleveland in 1999 and Tampa Bay's Ray Perkins and Vinny Testaverde in 1987.
Likewise, things never quite worked out as Houston owner Bob McNair would have liked when the expansion Texans hired Dom Capers and paired him with David Carr. They went through four losing seasons before Capers was fired.
But clearly the biggest disaster, and perhaps Carolina's biggest fear, is what happened just four years ago in Oakland when the Raiders hired Kiffin and paired him with Russell, a star quarterback at LSU.
Kiffin lasted only 20 games before a highly publicized quarrel with confrontational owner Al Davis led to his release. Russell's career, which included a 7-18 record as a starter, was over within three seasons.
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There was one exception to the rule of a quarterback's play determining a coach's future.
In 1998, Colts general manager Bill Polian took Peyton Manning with the first pick in the draft. But Manning's first coach, Jim Mora, did little with the future Hall of Famer and he parted ways with the Colts after three unsuccessful seasons. It wasn't until Tony Dungy took over that Manning and the Colts won the Super Bowl.
So what will happen with the Panthers, a team that finished 2-14 last season, prompting owner Jerry Richardson to let John Fox walk after nine seasons and hire Rivera, who ultimately drafted Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn, with the No. 1 overall pick?
Only time will tell.
But Newton is confident he's a good fit in Carolina.
"I really look forward to a long-lasting relationship with Coach Rivera," Newton said. "I think I've grown on Coach Rivera throughout this whole process and I admire the type of coach he is and his whole mentality as a coach. When the draft got done I felt extremely confident and comfortable being with an excellent coach and a part of an excellent coaching staff."
Offensive tackle Jordan Gross said it's impossible to know how Rivera and Newton will mesh because the Panthers haven't even had a practice together thanks to the ongoing lockout.
But he feels like after getting to know Rivera briefly and spending time with Newton during two weeks of player workouts at Charlotte Christian High School that both men have outstanding track records and are driven to succeed.
"There's no doubt their success depends on each other a little bit," Gross said. "And I think both are doing everything right.
"When I talked to Coach Rivera before the lockout started, he has a plan and has everything in place and knows what he wants to do."
Newton came to Carolina with plenty of questions marks, some questioning his desire for greatness.
But so far he has done everything you can ask for in his preparation to take the step to the next level.
Aside from working at the IMG Football Academy with ex-Panther Chris Weinke and former Ron Chudzinski understudy Ken Dorsey, Newton also made a point to make it to all eight player-organized practices over the course of two weeks, even though that meant flying to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Obama to celebrate Auburn's BCS championship and returning to Charlotte just hours later so he could be ready for the following day's practice.
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"I think the first thing is he's here," said punter Jason Baker of Newton last week at the player workouts. "You see him interacting and having fun with the guys. I think it's kind of a family atmosphere and it's kind of relaxed."
Baker said Newton participated in all player activities, including a trip to the U.S. Whitewater Center in Charlotte last week following practice.
"We have guys on the team that decided not to be out here and he's a guy who decided to be out here and I'm proud of him for that," Baker said. "I know he's in good shape and working out, so everything I've seen from him has been encouraging."
Said Gross: "Cam has just come in and kind of kept quiet and had fun with the guys and just tried to fit in and earned some respect by working hard and doing things right. He's thrown some great passes and gotten under center and been vocal with his cadence when we've done our team offense stuff. But overall he's shown that he's in shape and willing to work hard."
Newton shrugs his wide, chiseled shoulders when told of his teammates' comments.
He said there's nowhere else he would rather have been than in Charlotte building new relationships with his teammates.
"I just wanted to come out here and try to meet the guys and try to get an idea about what each player was about," Newton said. "You can talk on the phone or text each other but that can only go so far. We had a lot of opportunities to meet with each other as far as going out to eat and having small talk. That is what you get with team chemistry. And you can't get that on the phone."
For Newton, the process of developing into a starting NFL quarterback could take some time.
He faces a hurdle other top picks haven't -- a lockout that has prevented players from participating in minicamps and OTAs, thus potentially steepening the learning curve. Sure, he was given a copy of the Panthers playbook when the courts briefly lifted the lockout in April and said he feels like he has a good grip on the offense.
But nothing comes close to working alongside coaches.
Newton won a national title last season with the Tigers, but understands that his success at the NFL level will require an even greater dedication.
"The one big thing is preparation," Newton said. "Obviously preparing to play quarterback at the NFL level is completely different than at the college level. Also, the terminology, the blitz schemes and, at the end of the day, the reality is you're not playing freshman anymore. You are playing grown men and that is where speed comes into play. In college they can show you something on defense to some degree, but in the NFL you see these guys walking around and doing an excellent job of disguising their blitzes."
Background concerns have followed Newton to Carolina, but Rivera said he likes the young man for a variety of reasons.
"The thing that stood out, and I find kind of impressive too, is he had the situation at one point that could have really tore him down and, if anything, you can say he rose above it, became a champion on the junior college level, became a champion at the NCAA Division I level and won the Heisman Trophy," Rivera said. "In spite of all the distractions, all the turmoil, the young man rose above it and that spoke very highly, I think, of his character being able to learn and grow from his situation and become the player and the person that he is right now. This was not done lightly."
The good news for the Panthers is that Newton, who referred to himself as an "icon and entertainer" before the NFL Draft, seems willing to do everything in his power to become a team player in Carolina and ensure Rivera's tenure will be a lengthy one.
But there's still work to be done.
"We won't just give him respect, that's for sure," linebacker Jon Beason said. "He's going to need to earn it."