By Ted Fleming
It is amazing how a few wins have been able to put the brakes on all the claptrap surrounding the Panthers’ dismal season. It’s understandable how it all began, but now that the head coach has shown he is not as stupid as some would have had you believe just six short weeks ago, and that Superman has broken out of that claustrophobic phone booth he was locked in, maybe it is time to peer into the future.
No one is quite sure how the early season failures will ultimately play into Ron Rivera’s future in Charlotte, but it is quite clear he was able to take his franchise quarterback off that slippery slope he was on regarding his performance on the field followed by some rather absurd postgame press conferences.
Today, Cam Newton is about as relaxed as he has ever been in both arenas and it has resulted in a 3-3 record. He has told his teammates that he accepts the responsibility for the team’s poor play when the team was one up and six down, a sign of a maturing 23-year old.
The Panthers could very well match their record from a year ago, and while that is really nothing to brag about, it is still light years from where they were headed.
Owner Jerry Richardson has to look long and hard about making a change at head coach. To do so would set the franchise back at least one year, because many of the so-called miracle workers are spoken for. One name that has been bandied about is Andy Reid, and he would be a perfect fit if the Panthers were a step or two from going deep into the playoffs. They are not.
First, Reid is still employed; for how long, no one really knows, only it looks like he won’t last more than a day or two once the regular season is over. Second, the Eagles are also an underachieving bunch and there have been questions about whether some of the players simply quit on their coach.
The Panthers, on the other hand, were going in the same direction, but no one even hinted that anyone had quit. In fact, just the opposite.
The Cats have had their fair share of injuries and when the losses began to pile up, Rivera simply plucked another player from the “Next Man Up” pile and found some gems and some diamonds in the rough. Rivera and his coordinators have done a solid job keeping the wheels from completely falling off, and the fact he wasn’t let go when GM Marty Hurney was may turn out to be the best move Richardson didn’t make.
The Panthers are not as bad as their record would indicate and a move here and there could put them back on the fast track. Richardson’s priority is finding a general manager who can begin the process of unleashing themselves from one of those big running back contracts while taking some of the savings to build up the offensive line. Adding a top flight receiver to complement and eventually replace Steve Smith is a given, because the jury is still out whether Brandon LaFell in the type of impact player some see in him.
The biggest surprise is the defense. There were so many question marks entering the season and despite being crushed under the weight of injury after injury, no one could have thought they would keep the Panthers in so many games. Sure, there were some late game meltdowns and missteps along the way, but here is where Rivera should get the attention of his owner.
No one will suggest the current defense is championship material. That comes with time, some good draft picks and free agents, but the nucleus is there for the defensive minded head coach. Most everyone believed Luke Kuechly had the ability to be a star, only he started the season out of position and didn’t move into his more natural middle linebacker spot until an injury opened it up. Now there is talk he could win top defensive rookie honors, and that is just one of the success stories that have come out of a miserable year.
If there is anything learned from the last six weeks it’s that Ron Rivera can coach. He is not over his head as some have suggested. He doesn’t need a vote of confidence from Richardson – that is usually the kiss of death anyway – he needs his owner to tell him he will return for a third season.
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Ted Fleming is a freelance writer covering all things Carolina Panthers. His work can be found on Examiner.com.