Panthers coach Rivera meets former mentor under less than ideal circumstances

rgreenjr@charlotteobserver.comNovember 26, 2012 

  • NFL hot seats Eight NFL coaches whose jobs may be in jeopardy this season:   ANDY REID, PHILADELPHIA Case For: He’s led the Eagles to five NFC title games and one Super Bowl and hasn’t forgotten how to coach. Case Against: After 14 seasons, maybe it’s time for a fresh start for Reid and the Eagles. RON RIVERA, CAROLINA Case For: He’s only in his second season after taking over a team that was 2-14 before he arrived. Case Against: The Panthers keep finding ways to lose close games, suggesting they have the talent but lack something else. JASON GARRETT, DALLAS Case For: He’s a smart offensive mind who has shown himself capable of working in owner Jerry Jones’ world. Case Against: The Cowboys have won one playoff game since 1996 and Jones’ patience is probably wearing thin. REX RYAN, N.Y. JETS Case For: He has the personality to handle the New York market and he’s shown the ability to get the Jets to the AFC title game. Case Against: There’s always drama swirling around the Jets and with just four wins so far, they’ve underachieved. ROMEO CRENNEL, KANSAS CITY Case For: He took over as interim coach last year and is in his first full season this year, hardly time to make a big impact. Case Against: The Chiefs may be the NFL’s worst team and show little sign of quickly improving. NORV TURNER, SAN DIEGO Case For: He’s an outstanding offensive coach and he’s shown he’s capable of working under stress as he seems to do each season. Case Against: The Chargers haven’t been as good as expected and there’s a sense Turner’s time is running out. JIM SCHWARTZ, DETROIT Case For: He turned the NFL’s only 0-16 team into a playoff team building around quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson. Case Against: The Lions have been undisciplined and there’s growing discontent with the direction of the franchise. MIKE MULARKEY, JACKSONVILLE Case For: He’s not blessed with great talent on the roster, and losing quarterback Blaine Gabbert after being without running back Maurice Jones-Drew isn’t his fault. Case Against: The Jaguars have won two games this season and may have the lowest profile of any team in the league. Ron Green Jr.
  • More information Panthers gameday

Panthers coach will meet similarly scrutinized Reid, Eagles on Monday night

In the winter of 1999, when Andy Reid went looking for a linebackers coach to fill out his first staff in his new job as coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, he found Ron Rivera.

As an assistant coach at Green Bay, Reid had coached against Rivera, the player, when Rivera was a Chicago Bears linebacker, and the two men had a professional familiarity with each other.

They had planned to talk officially at the NFL combine during the offseason, but Reid and Rivera kept running into each other at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. After three or four conversations before their official interview, Reid offered Rivera a job in Philadelphia.

For five years, Rivera worked on Reid’s staff until he left for Chicago to become defensive coordinator with the Bears.

Rivera and Reid have stayed in touch through the years, and Monday night they will be on opposite sidelines at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia when the Panthers and Eagles meet at 8:30.

It’s not how either envisioned the scenario for their meeting on “Monday Night Football.”

Rivera’s Panthers are a disappointing 2-8, having mastered the unenviable art of losing close games, most recently blowing an 11-point lead in the final five minutes against Tampa Bay. Reid’s Eagles, meanwhile, are 3-7 with a six-game losing streak and are without starting quarterback Michael Vick.

There is uncertainty about the coaching future of both men. Rivera is 8-18 in less than two seasons with the Panthers and, with a new general manager to be hired in the offseason, there is no certainty he will coach the final two years of his contract.

Reid, in his 14th season, is the longest-tenured coach in the NFL. He’s the 22nd-winningest coach in NFL history, has led the Eagles to six NFC East titles, five NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl. But there is a sense his time as the Eagles coach may soon end.

“Having been in Philadelphia for five seasons, (I) know how tough it is,” Rivera said . “It’s a city with very, very, very high expectations. And it’s a city that they are very emotional and passionate, almost to a fault.

“And I know this is tough on (Reid). He’s had so many good years there. He has a terrific winning percentage there. But it’s unfortunate that he’s going through this.”

The same coaching family

Reid has been one of the predominant influences in Rivera’s coaching life. He played for Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan in Chicago and been an assistant to Dave Wannstedt, Norv Turner and Reid. Rivera worked closely with Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, once considered one of the league’s top defensive minds.

Ask Rivera about what Reid is like away from the familiar news conference settings, where the Eagles’ coach is typically reticent, and Rivera smiles and laughs at the stories he tells. He talks of their meals together and Reid’s concern for the people around him.

Asked the best head coaching lesson he learned from his five years with Reid and Rivera doesn’t hesitate.

“Just the way he sticks to who he is. And the way he treated everybody with a tremendous amount of respect,” Rivera said. “I was always impressed with the way he handled everybody from one of the ball boys to the players to the coaches. I always thought he did a terrific job communicating with all of those.”

As Rivera grows into the role of head coach, finding consistent success has been elusive. The Panthers finished well last season but have failed to meet expectations this season. The strength of last year’s team, the offense, has regressed. The defense, a weakness a season ago, is significantly improved.

“I think he’s wired the right way,” Reid said of Rivera. “I like the things they are doing, that’s all I can tell you. I look at it from a coaching standpoint from afar but I’m also preparing to play them and I’m preparing to play a good football team that’s had some tough breaks.”

Earlier this season, Rivera fired special teams coach Brian Murphy after a series of misadventures on the punting and kicking teams. Things didn’t improve much last week against Tampa Bay and kicker Justin Medlock was jettisoned for Graham Gano in hopes of stabilizing the position.

As the Panthers have spun the wrong way this season, they have continually found different ways to lose games. They have not shown a single fundamental flaw other than an inability to finish games.

They lost double-digit, fourth-quarter leads against Chicago and Tampa Bay and have led in the fourth quarter of all but two games they’ve lost.

“I believe in Ron. I believe in what he’s doing,” Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “We’ve been close in games. The margin for error in the NFL is so small. I’ve been around it before. I was around it in Philadelphia. It takes a lot to win a football game at this level. We haven’t been able to do that as much as we wanted to this year. But we’re going to stay after it.”

A learning process

Herm Edwards, who was born in the same town as Rivera and has known him through the years, says it takes time to grow into the role of head coach. Rivera, Edwards says, is going through a seasoning process that most new coaches go through.

“In your first year or two, the staff you hire is probably not going to be the one you’re going to end up with down the road. It takes a while for you to really understand your staff and for them to understand you. Sometimes it doesn’t fit,” said Edwards, the former Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets coach, who now works for ESPN.

“That’s why sometimes you have to make changes in your second year because your staff doesn’t fit. It doesn’t mean the guy isn’t a good coach. Once you have your staff meetings and those guys leave and go their separate ways, you can’t be in all those rooms. Your message is your message.

“Players hear all the little things that don’t match up with the head coach (and assistant coaches). If you’re losing, players kind of use that as an excuse. ‘Well, this coach said this and this coach said that so I’m getting mixed messages.’ That’s an out for a player, and I say that as a former player. I’ve been in those situations.”

After the loss to Tampa Bay last Sunday, veteran linebacker Thomas Davis said it’s not right for Rivera and his staff to be blamed for the losing. It’s on the players, Davis said, for not executing what they’ve been coached to do.

Rivera has come under fire for decisions he has made – or didn’t make – this season. His decision not to attempt a 51-yard field goal on the last play of the first half at Chicago was criticized. He elected not to go for it on fourth-and-1 late in the fourth quarter against Tampa Bay last Sunday when a first down would have effectively ended the game.

“Do I second-guess myself? Yes,” Rivera says. “Sometimes I say, ‘maybe I should have gone for it on that fourth-and-one at Atlanta if we’re going to lose that game.’ I said the same thing (Sunday) night. Maybe I should have gone for it on fourth-and-one.

“Then if you don’t get it, you give them a short field. If you do get it, you’re successful. The biggest thing I’ve tried to do is stick true to the things I believe as a coach and stay with that.

“I’ve been asked a lot about decisions on certain other things and there’s so much you have to take into consideration. There’s a lot of things you can do. You can shoot from the hip if you want. I’m not sure what that winning percentage is.

“I’ve tried to do things based on what I’ve learned and what I believe is best for us.”

Unrealistic expectations

Edwards says he thinks the expectations on the Panthers this season were exaggerated. He saw them as a team capable of finishing around .500. He didn’t buy into projections they were ready to make a big leap into the playoffs.

“They can’t finish. It’s like the Dallas Cowboys,” Edwards said.

“Here’s the difference between 6-10 and 10-6. If they win three of those games they lost by a couple of points, we’re not having this conversation. They’d have five wins and people would be saying they’re playing pretty good. But they don’t win those games. Then your team kind of goes, ‘uh-oh, can we win a game? Uh-oh, what bad is going to happen?’

“That’s why if you go back and look at wins (for most teams) and say if we don’t make just a few plays, we’re 6-10 instead of 10-6. Nobody wants to hear that. It’s just how many have you won and how many have you lost?”

The Panthers have lost too many. They are 10-32 over their past 42 games.

Rivera says he has talked to Norv Turner, the perpetually embattled San Diego Chargers coach, about the job he is doing. Turner has counseled him to stay positive, telling Rivera that he is doing the right things and that, eventually, the results will change.

But time may not be on Rivera’s side.

Is two years enough to know if Rivera can be consistently successful as an NFL coach?

“Naw, naw,” Edwards said. “What situation was he walking into? He was walking into a rookie quarterback.

“The problem with that team is … Cam Newton comes in here and barnstorms the whole league. Basically, you did some things but you’re basically the same team, you have two good runners but you kind of got away from the offense a little bit, I think.

“You went to the spread offense kind of like what (Cam) did in college but you took it one step further and digressed. You hurt it more than helped it. Now, the backs weren’t involved.

“Last year, it was beautiful what they did with the kid. They used two tight ends a lot. They had two big backs they could bang up in there. (Cam) made good plays on his own when he could run, but he caught everybody by surprise.

“In the offseason, people learned what he could do. We’re going to rush him and we’re going to keep him in the pocket and make him throw. Then you go to this offense and try to run out of the shotgun (formation), well, that’s hard.”

‘Keep pounding’

With six games remaining in the regular season, the Panthers are already mathematically eliminated from winning the NFC South. The playoffs are also out the window.

What is Rivera’s message to fans of a franchise that has never had consecutive winning seasons?

“The only thing you can do is, like our motto says, is just keep pounding. It doesn’t last forever. I can tell you that right now,” Rivera said. “If you went back and looked at every team that has turned things around, they’ve had to struggle. Last year San Francisco, for a while, they struggled. Then things started to happen. When I got in the league as a player, Green Bay struggled. Now good things are happening. You’ve got to keep going. You can’t give up.

“I learned that a couple of weeks ago when I told about Cedric King (a member of the military who was badly injured in Afghanistan). He said you get to the military hospital and they tell you that you’ve got two choices: One is you can curl up and die and two is you can get up every morning and keep pushing.

“That’s what I’ve got to do. I’ll show up. I’ll give 100 percent. I’ll do the best I can. It is frustrating. It is discouraging. It’s also the nature of the game. Somebody’s winning. Somebody’s losing.

“We most certainly want to be the one that wins.”

Green: 704-358-5118; Twitter: @rongreenjr

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