The quality that makes Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera popular among his players, coaches, team officials and even the fickle media is the thing that could get him fired after this season.
Ron Rivera might be too nice.
There are quantitative ways to dissect the Panthers’ 1-5 start: Cam Newton’s passing yardage and completion percentage are down, and so are the team’s rushing numbers. The Panthers are near the bottom of the league in third- and fourth-down efficiency, and their inability to win close games has haunted them for two years.
Rivera has 10 games to correct those issues and start winning. Otherwise, Rivera expects to suffer the same fate as former general manager Marty Hurney, who was fired Monday by owner Jerry Richardson.
“Those are the things that we’ve got to get over and get through and get done,” Rivera said Thursday in an exclusive interview with the Observer. “At some point it’s got to happen.
“Of course, if it’s not trending up, then honestly, the decision has to be made.”
Rivera has made changes already. Since Hurney’s firing on Monday, he has tweaked the team’s practice routine and placed a renewed emphasis on a more traditional rushing attack.
But the biggest change will also be the hardest: Rivera has to change himself.
Rivera, 50, is the son of a Puerto Rican-born, commissioned Army officer. He played nine seasons as a linebacker with the Chicago Bears, who host the Panthers on Sunday at Soldier Field. A second-round pick from Cal in the 1984 draft, Rivera became a three-year starter for the Bears, and he won a Super Bowl ring.
But he never was a star, and entered training camp each summer thinking it could be his last.
Rivera followed a similar path to his first head-coaching job, paying his dues as an assistant coach and interviewing eight times for head-coaching vacancies before Hurney hand-picked him in January 2011.
Rivera inherited a team that finished 2-14 in 2010 with a depleted roster the Panthers pared to cut salaries before last year’s NFL lockout.
The Panthers used the first pick in the 2011 draft on Newton, then spent freely after the lockout ended to lock up seven home-grown players they called their “core.”
Rivera, who received a four-year deal worth a reported $11.2 million, admits he erred in taking too soft a tone with the 2011 team, which did not have minicamps or organized team activities because of the lockout.
“When I first got there, you’re thinking 2-14, and I talked to people and listened to people (who said), ‘You’ve got to build these guys up,’ ” Rivera said. “Honestly, I’ve been trying to build these guys up.
“Part of the problem is you build people up and you talk about a process. You talk about, ‘We’re a young team. We’re in a process.’ Bull.
“We’re not a young team. Look at the veterans at each position. And at that point you give people an excuse.”
The Panthers started last season 1-5 and were 2-8 before winning four of their final six games. The way they finished, combined with Newton’s play during a NFL rookie-of-the-year campaign, raised expectations.
In the offseason, linebacker Jon Beason mentioned he wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than a Super Bowl run. Center Ryan Kalil’s full-page ad in the Observer echoed that sentiment in July.
Herm Edwards, former coach of the New York Jets and Kansas City, said those expectations were unrealistic.
“They caught lightning in a bottle with the way Cam Newton played. Remember, they started out 1-5 just like this year,” said Edwards, an ESPN analyst. “ We’re all up in arms because we see (Newton) and his mannerisms, and, ‘What’s wrong with the guy?’
“There’s nothing wrong with him.
“It’s the National Football League. … It’s hard, man.”
‘A good man’
Edwards grew up in the same area in northern California as Rivera, who went to a rival high school and is eight years younger than Edwards.
“I’ve known Ron a long time,” Edwards said. “He’s a good man.”
That’s the consensus from those who know Rivera. Friends describe his as down-to-earth, honest, a man who cares deeply about his friends and family.
Another descriptor: Laid-back, true to his California roots.
But some fans and critics say Rivera is too laid-back, that he doesn’t show his emotions enough on the sideline.
That’s not his personality.
“He’s even-keeled,” Panthers linebacker and special teams captain Jordan Senn said. “He’s got his points he’s making each week, stays steady on what he wants done and the way he wants things. Is he emotional, and jumping and running around on the sidelines? No. I’ve never seen him doing it.”
Rivera’s usual sideline posture – arms across his chest – is one of calm. That might be changing.
“It’s time,” Rivera said. “I’ve always (thought) when all hell’s breaking loose, they want to see a guy who’s stoically in charge, But you know what, truthfully when all hell is breaking loose, they want to see this guy in charge, but a different way.”
Senn and other players said Rivera is respected in the locker room because he played the game. But the flip side is that because he is a former player, Rivera sometimes gives his guys too much credit, slaps them on the back instead of kicking them in the rear.
“Part of my problem, I think, is I’m overly optimistic,” Rivera said. “I see the bright side. I see the positive. I see the future getting better. My first inclination is to see the bright side.
“And I think we’re past that now. I know we’re past that.”
Edwards, a cornerback who spent 10 seasons in the NFL, said coaches who played want to give players the benefit of the doubt.
“You think that those players work as hard as you worked, and a lot of them don’t,” Edwards said. “And you find that out as you continue to coach.”
Can he motivate?
Some see Rivera’s stoicism and wonder whether he can motivate the Panthers.
The team has had issues at the start of halves under Rivera. Carolina’s defense allowed 80-yard touchdown drives on their opponent’s opening series in the first three games this season.
That stretch included a 36-7 loss to the Giants in a nationally-televised, Thursday night game against the defending Super Bowl champions.
In a game players labeled a “statement game” for the Panthers, they allowed the Giants to score on their first four possessions and fell behind 20-0 at halftime.
That loss was the only one of the Panthers’ five losses not decided by six points or fewer. Failure to win tight games has been a constant under Rivera, who is 1-9 in games decided by a touchdown or less.
Rivera points to a play or two near the end of each of the past three losses – 30-28 at Atlanta, 16-12 vs. Seattle, and 19-14 vs. Dallas – that would have made the difference.
“Would things be different if Atlanta turned out different or Seattle turned out different?,” Rivera asked. “Without a doubt. But they haven’t. There’s an old saying, ‘You are what your record says you are.’ And that’s unfortunate.”
A chance for redemption
The Panthers’ remaining schedule is not as daunting as it looked before the season. Only two of their remaining 10 opponents have winning records – the Bears (5-1) and Falcons (6-0). And the Panthers face the four NFC West teams, which have combined to go 1-6 vs. the NFC South this season.
Rivera said making a late-season run this season would be different than last, when the team was out of contention and had nothing to gain or lose.
There’s more at stake this season – jobs, including those of the coaching staff, front office and players.
“Now the pressure’s on,” Rivera said. “Now there’s consequences. So we have to find out if this group is going to do it under me when there’s consequences.”
Rivera does not believe there is a certain win total the Panthers need to reach for him to keep his job. But he knows they have to be have to be heading in the right direction – “trending upward,” he called it.
Otherwise, Rivera’s first stint as a head coach could be a short one.
Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert, who was with Rivera in San Diego, said players have his back.
“We’re going to stand behind him as long as we can,” Tolbert said. “If it’s 10 weeks, 11 weeks, we’re going to stand behind him for the rest of the year and for as long as he’s our head coach.”
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