By Ted Fleming
At his day-after-game press conference, Ron Rivera finally got a chance to bask in the afterglow of a win, but it didn’t take long before he was hit with the reality being asked about the Panthers’ next game. “I wanted to enjoy this a little longer but I guess not,” he said just 13-minutes in.
A day later the head coach must have been shaking his head even harder when a local paper blared an above the fold headline: “Rivera needs big comeback to save job,” while under the picture of him and former Carolina head coach John Fox read, “Panthers may need to finish at least 8-8 for coach to be around next season.”
At 2-6 it would mean the Panthers would have to go 6-2 the rest of the way against teams like the Broncos, Buccaneers, Falcons and Saints, who take up half of the remaining schedule. They are a combined 20-12 at this point and even though Tampa Bay (4-4) and New Orleans (3-5) are part of that, beating them would be considered a bit of an upset simply because the former is a team on the rise and the latter one that can pile up points against even the best defenses.
Rivera has taken his share of the heat for the Panthers’ record, some of it justified like the lack of a consistent running game and a somewhat questionable game plan against the Bears. The Panthers consistently gave up precious field position on kickoffs just to keep the ball out of the hands of Devin Hester, arguably the most dangerous return specialist in the NFL.
When owner Jerry Richardson jettisoned GM Marty Hurney, it was at that very moment the speculation about Rivera’s job began. When was it his turn? After one more loss? Two? Would the man who writes the checks wait until the end of the season? It didn’t matter, because there were headlines to write and papers to sell and nothing does that better than churning the rumor mill.
While it is absolutely correct that he will be forever joined at the hip of the departed Hurney, Rivera should not be judged on the ex-GM’s failure to improve the club in areas best left for other debates.
Cam Newton was coming off a 6-10 season and to listen to the pundits (and center Ryan Kalil in preseason), the Panthers were already making reservations in New Orleans for next February. For what it’s worth, 6-10 is still a losing season and to make more of it is pure folly.
Newton’s rookie records notwithstanding, the last time anyone looked there were ten other players on his side of the ball and 11 others playing defense. There was nothing to suggest Carolina was going to be anything more than a very improved team in 2012 let alone worthy of a Super Bowl berth.
Is that Rivera’s fault? Bad seasons have a way of targeting management and because the general manager is already gone the only one left to pick on is the head coach. But let’s look at the season so far.
The league caught up to Newton and the 23-year old has failed to adjust. That is not to say he won’t eventually figure it out but up to now he has been overwhelmed. Injuries have also played a key part in the meteoric drop in expectations because as players fell so did the record. And the defense was supposed to be improved only the unit that began the season is not the one on the field today.
Marty Hurney may be gone but his fingerprints are still on that defense that had enough depth to overcome players being in and out of the lineup. Among them are some diamonds in the rough that have so far shined after being given a chance to play more regularly. Rivera pointed that out on Monday because that unit has been together for a few weeks now and they are performing at a high level.
While a loss is still a loss, the Panthers have been in all of them save one, the blowout against the Giants. In the others they came up short by a total of just 18 points – 6, 2, 4, 5, 1 – meaning that just a field goal would have Carolina at 4-4, even with the Buccaneers. Would anyone be screaming for Rivera’s head then? Probably not. And as strange as it may sound, a touchdown and PAT and it would be the Panthers who would be 7-1 in a flat-footed tie with the Falcons atop the NFC South.
A little perspective.
Rivera deserves a chance to succeed with this team because he has held them together, despite all the adversity. Kicking him to the curb after only two seasons will set this organization back and could even affect the search for a replacement, as it will be seen as a place with no security.
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Ted Fleming is a freelance writer covering all things Carolina Panthers. His work can be found on Examiner.com.