(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
In many ways you really can’t blame them. If they say something halfway interesting, those words could get massaged into all sorts of meanings. So usually it’s just easier to essentially say nothing.
That’s the game athletes and coaches play with the media these days. The media wants substance. They lust for quotes that are somewhat meaningful and honest. But when athletes or coaches pull back that curtain, they could get burned.
For nine years as the Panthers head coach, John Fox refused to allow even a slight glance into his true thoughts. He knew how to play the game and played it well. At least, for him. The media and fans were left to interpret what exactly "it" is.
That’s why it’s so striking to hear his replacement, Ron Rivera say, well, anything. Folks around here aren’t used to hearing the truth, true emotion or even some gameday strategies.
Before his NFL head coaching debut earlier this season in Arizona, Rivera admitted to having "a moment of reflection" that week in his office. He also revealed plans to search for his wife in the stands before the game. He would point to her. The message: "We made it."
This week, Rivera returns to Chicago, the place where most of this started. It’s the city where he earned a Super Bowl ring as a player and where he began his coaching career.
So the media’s job this week is to ask about "an extra meaning." Most would deflect with clichéd answers. Not Rivera.
"I’m not going to downplay it," Rivera said Monday. "People say it’s just another game. No it’s not. They’re all big, but this has a little personal meaning for me because it’s Chicago."
While Rivera came to Charlotte via Chicago, Julius Peppers went in the opposite direction. And the two couldn’t be more opposite regarding their public emotions this week.
Again, Rivera said: "People say it’s just another game. No it’s not."
Now here’s what Peppers told Panthers reporters in his conference call Wednesday: "All of that stuff about me returning, that was two years ago," Peppers quipped. "This is really like another game for me."
To be fair, Peppers did go through the whole "playing against your old team" thing last year.
For Greg Olsen, this is his first time through.
A first round pick by the Bears in 2007, there’s no question Olsen grew frustrated by his limited role as a pass-catching tight end. After dealing him to the Panthers in July, Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said Olsen had previously requested a trade.
Wednesday, Olsen again denied that ever happened.
"I played well for them for four years," Olsen said. "They wanted to go a different direction at that position and they made that decision. It worked out well that I landed here to a team that wanted me and a team that wanted to use me."
Just like Rivera, Peppers and Olsen, Bears head coach Lovie Smith was peppered with questions Wednesday about the myriad of ties that bind his team and the Panthers together. Some ties are tight. Others are somewhat awkward.
When Smith took over the Bears in 2004, Rivera was not his first choice as defensive coordinator. But Rivera had that job for three seasons until Smith chose to go "in a different direction."
"Each year, you as a head coach decide on what direction you’re going forward," Smith said. "That’s what I decided. No more than that -- nothing personal. I wasn’t disappointed in the job he did here."
So do we believe Smith? Did he really let Rivera go if he wasn’t "disappointed?"
How about Peppers? Even though he played the Panthers last year, is this "just another game"?
There’s no way to tell, really.
But what we do know is this week does mean something extra for Rivera. There’s no need to massage words to make his return to Chicago mean anything more than it is, because it means a whole heck of a lot.
"It’s been a good city to me," Rivera said. "I’ve got a lot of great memories. A lot of friends are going to come by and see me and it’s exciting to me. I’m not going to shy away from that, I think it’s great."