Rivera, Kuechly receive top AP awards

The Carolina Panthers didn't reach the Super Bowl this season, but a big part of a foundation that could get them there in the future was honored on Saturday night at "NFL Honors."

Coach Ron Rivera was named the Associated Press Coach of the Year and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly the AP Defensive Player of the Year during the awards ceremony at Radio City Music Hall.

For Rivera it completed a clean sweep of the major coach of the year awards. He received 21 1/2 votes from a nationwide panel of 50 voters after leading a Carolina team that hadn't made the playoffs since 2008 to a 12-4 record and the NFC South title.

He beat Kansas City's Andy Reid (13 1/2 votes), who took the Chiefs from an NFL-worst 2-14 record in 2012 to 11-5 and second in the AFC West, for the award.

What Reid did was remarkable, but what Rivera did was more impressive. After consecutive 6-10 and 7-9 seasons to start his career as a first-time head coach, the Panthers began this season 0-2 and then 1-3.

Without a winning reputation to fall back on, Rivera led the team to eight straight wins and 11 in their final 12 to finish the regular season 12-4 with a first-round bye in the playoffs.

"You look at the way the season started, Rivera preached the same message all the way through," Kuechly told me by phone from New York City. "He told us we will be all right, to trust in the coach, trust in the game plan."

Having stars such as Kuechly, last season's NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year, didn't hurt. Kuechly led Carolina with 156 tackles, including 24 in a late-season victory over New Orleans that propelled the team to the division title.

His award, too, was much deserved.

"This is great," Kuechly said of the awards he and Rivera received. "Look at our team and what we accomplished, it's a really good representation of where we came from."

When Rivera was announced as the league's top coach, NFL great Michael Irvin referred to him as "Riverboat Ron."

That was fitting.

Rivera earned the nickname early in the season after putting aside his conservative approach -- one of the most conservative in the league the past two seasons -- and began taking chances on fourth down.

He successfully showed his new riverboat gambler mentality twice successfully on fourth-and-1 on the first drive of a 35-10 victory at Minnesota that began the eight-game winning streak.

"I think that he is kind of breaking his mold to a degree, and giving the whole team confidence with him," quarterback Cam Newton said at the time.

Rivera made the decision to be more aggressive and show more confidence in his players on the bus ride to the airport after a 24-23 loss at Buffalo left Carolina 0-2.

Rivera was criticized for kicking a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Buffalo 21 with less than two minutes to play and a three-point lead -- not to mention a banged up secondary.

The Bills then went the distance to win on touchdown pass with two seconds left.

"Sometimes you play by the book and you miss opportunities," Rivera said during the season. "The thing I really like is the guys have said to me they appreciate me showing faith in who we are as a football team."

A change in philosophy turned into a changed team and a boatload of postseason honors for Rivera and players such as Kuechly.

The next goal is the Super Bowl.

"We did some really big things and took a couple of big steps," Rivera told me last week when discussing the possibility of winning this award. "[Coach of the year] would be a great tribute to the organization and what we accomplished this season.

"But we still have a long way to go to fulfill our vision."