(Reuters) - Ron Rivera has a chance to become only the fourth man to win a Super Bowl as both a player and head coach, a remarkable feat considering the bleak situation he was in three years ago.
Several media outlets had reported Rivera was going to be fired after the National Football League's 2012 campaign with the Panthers having posted losing records in each of his first two seasons in charge.
The reports proved erroneous, and given his reprieve, Rivera re-evaluated his approach. He began spending more off-field time with his players, encouraged them to confide their gripes, and succeeded in getting them to talk about their problems.
But more perhaps more importantly Rivera, who had earned a reputation in his first two NFL seasons with Carolina for making conservative tactical decisions, ultimately reconsidered his game-day philosophy.
In the second game of the 2013 season the Panthers were up 20-17 with under two minutes to play and faced with a fourth-and-one at Buffalo's 21-yard line. They could have closed out the game with a first down.
Instead, Rivera opted for a field goal and Buffalo then marched down the field for the game-winning touchdown.
It was a pivotal moment. Rivera decided to be bolder from that point, and the rest is history. He has since earned the nickname "Riverboat Ron" – a reference to the old American pastime of riverboat gambling.
Of course, it hasn't hurt Rivera to have arguably the best, most athletic quarterback in the league in Cam Newton, who has also been with the team since 2011.
One thing Rivera and Newton, who will be up against the Denver Broncos in the Feb. 7 Super Bowl, have in common is that both had more than their share of skeptics.
"Carolina Panthers going nowhere with Ron Rivera, Cam Newton," blared a headline on NFL.com in early 2013.
The result of the Super Bowl may not be life or death for Rivera, 54, whose real-life experiences last year included a fire that destroyed his home and a brother dying of pancreatic cancer.
Nevertheless, victory would elevate him to an elite club with Mike Ditka, Tom Flores and Tony Dungy as a Super Bowl winner as both player and coach.
Rivera, a linebacker on the Chicago Bears team that won the Super Bowl in the 1985 season, will instruct his team to adopt the same attitude that Ditka instilled in his players three decades ago.
"One of the things coach Ditka emphasized to us was to enjoy the moment," Rivera said.
"The moment doesn't come very often. It's hard. It's hard to get to where we are right now."
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Frank Pingue)