By Ted Fleming
When general manager Marty Hurney was fired, the words “trending upward” turned into a kind of catch phrase that became the exclusive property of the City of Charlotte. While it did originate – at least the 2012 version of it – in the Queen City, it has been attributed to Panthers’ owner Jerry Richardson, who attached it to the job status of Ron Rivera and what the team needed to do in order for the head coach to return for a third season at the helm.
Had Richardson jettisoned Rivera at the same time as Hurney, there would have been nary a whimper from the local and/or national media, not to mention all those empty seats at Bank of America Stadium. It would have been accepted as part of yet another rework of the franchise as they played out the string of lost season.
Rivera stayed on and no one other than Richardson knows why. However, if you are to look at the pre and post-Hurney Panthers’ record, one could make a legitimate argument that the team is indeed on an upward swing, although their 4-4 record during that stretch is still just mediocre. Rivera is convinced that the owner will decide his fate, because as he put it, “He has been open and honest with me,” and knows that he cannot worry about things he cannot control.
“This is not about a couple of good, emotional wins,” he said. “It’s really about the whole body of work from a certain point on. And that’s what we’re looking for.” The “certain point on” is telling. Does Richardson look at it from day one of Rivera’s tenure, then his 10-19 overall record will surely be the deciding factor. If it means over the last eight weeks, or more recently the Panthers first winning streak of the season, albeit a modest two-gamer, another year could be in the offing.
But before that will be decided, the obvious question put to Rivera was, where has this been all year? “There are a lot of circumstances you cannot control,” he said. “But the one thing you try to control is your performance when you step on the field. You’d like to say, ‘It’s been there,’ but the biggest thing I talked about last week, more so than anything else, was when we got into certain situations we have to make a play. Yesterday we didn’t have to make a play.”
Richardson can take some solace that his Panthers are not that far away from respectability. Injuries to key players have factored into the early season record and despite that adversity they played everyone tough, save the two crushing losses at the hands of the Manning Brothers, Eli with the Giants and the Broncos’ Peyton.
By most accounts, the current mini-streak should not have happened because they were supposed to be devoured by the Falcons and electrocuted by the Chargers, thereby making Richardson’s end of season decision very easy. Instead, the Panthers made people rethink Atlanta’s powerhouse status, for one week at least, and could very well hammered home the final nail in Norv Turner’s head coaching coffin in San Diego.
Rivera is a good man and a good coach. He is convincing a lot of people he is also a good head coach. The Panthers didn’t go into panic mode when everything seemed lost. They didn’t collapse under the weight of 13 players landing on injured reserve and others missing significant time before going on IR. They fought for each other and against the rising tide of criticism from the media and social media because, in their opinion, they were regressing.
“I will put myself up against anybody in Xs and Os,” said Rivera. “I feel very confident of that. But I’ve had to learn a lot about managing. When you’re managing 26 people and five coaches now you’re managing 61 people and 17 coaches, it’s a little bit different. So there’s been a lot to learn and grow on.”
The reference was being a defensive coordinator in San Diego compared to being a head coach in Charlotte.
Whether Rivera stays or goes you can bet the Panthers will be ready to play the final two games with one thing on their mind – winning.
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Ted Fleming is a freelance writer covering all things Carolina Panthers. His work can be found on Examiner.com.