NEW YORK — Carolina coach Ron Rivera won the “AP Coach of the Year” award Saturday night – the most prestigious coaching honor in the NFL community – and then said afterward his vision for the Panthers is to win the Super Bowl.
Rivera will be joined on that quest by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who won the “AP Defensive Player of the Year” award in only his second NFL season. Kuechly is the first Panther to ever win that honor. Both Rivera and Kuechly received their awards at the NFL Honors night at Radio City Music Hall on the eve of the Super Bowl.
In an interview with The Observer backstage, Rivera said the Panthers’ task in 2014 would be to become “even more relevant.”
“I think it’s awesome that we were able to take that step this year,” Rivera said. “And now it’s time to take the next step. It’s not just about getting to the NFC championship, it’s about winning it. It’s not just about getting to the Super Bowl, it’s about winning it. That’s the vision we have. And now it’s time to get back to work.”
Rivera’s award was announced by former Dallas wide receiver Michael Irvin, who called him “Riverboat Ron” in a nod to the nickname Rivera picked up for going for it frequently on fourth down as the Panthers went 11-1 over their final 12 regular-season games, won the NFC South and made their first playoff appearance in five years.
After a first-round playoff bye to get to the NFL’s “elite eight,” Carolina lost at home to San Francisco, in the divisional round.
“It’s an exciting time,” said Rivera, who recently signed a contract extension with the Panthers through the 2017 season. “We’ve taken some big steps. We’ve got some pieces in place. Now we’ve got to find some more.”
Kuechly, who was presented his award by Deion Sanders, said he didn’t expect to win and had not prepared a speech. So he winged it for about 30 seconds, thanking his teammates, coaches and family.
“You don’t win these individual awards by yourself,” said Kuechly, who has made a name for himself as one of the NFL’s surest tacklers and speediest linebackers. “Everyone helped.”
Kuechly also predicted Denver to win Sunday’s Super Bowl because he said he felt like this was Peyton Manning’s year. Manning won the AP’s MVP award – his fifth – but could not accept it in person since he was preparing for Sunday’s Super Bowl.
Rivera’s speech was as efficient as the Panthers’ defense in 2013, which ranked No.2 in points allowed in the NFL behind Seattle. He managed to thank God, his owner, his wife, his players, his coaches and the U.S. military in an on-air speech that lasted just less than a minute.
Kevin Greene, who played three of his 15 NFL seasons with Carolina, again fell just short of induction into the NFL’s hall of fame. The former pass-rushing linebacker was one of the 17 finalists.
Rivera, who will attend the Super Bowl, said backstage he and Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman were in frequent contact about Carolina’s salary-cap issues. He also said he hoped free-agent defensive end Greg Hardy – who tied a Carolina record with 15 sacks in 2013 –would be re-signed.
“We’d most certainly love to have Greg back,” Rivera said. “He was a big part of what we did this year, and it’d be hard to imagine doing things without him.”
The night’s first presented award had a serious Charlotte flavor, as Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and Sports Illustrated cover model Brooklyn Decker (from Matthews) teamed up to give the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award to Green Bay running back Eddie Lacy. Newton had won the same award two years before.
Newton was also the subject of host Alec Baldwin’s first joke of the night. Baldwin complimented Newton on his best season yet as a professional. The actor then cracked that Newton had originally turned pro “during his junior year at Auburn.”
New York Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson won AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, an award that Kuechly won the year before.
San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers, a former N.C. State standout, won the Comeback Player of the Year award.
All three NFL players who were finalists for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award – including Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis – had a lengthy televised segment devoted to their community work. Davis’s segment was narrated by actor Jamie Foxx. Davis ultimately did not win the award, which went to the Chicago Bears’ Charles Tillman.
Panther owner Jerry Richardson also attended the NFL Honors ceremony to support his players and coaches. Rivera thanked Richardson for sticking with the coach for a third season after Rivera went 6-10 and 7-9 in his first two years.
In answering a question about his former Panthers offensive coordinator, Rob Chudzinski, getting fired after a single season as Cleveland’s head coach, Rivera said: “We have become an instant-gratification society. … I was fortunate enough our owner had the patience and courage to stand beside me, and that he gave me the opportunities that he gave me.”
Fowler: email@example.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler