Panthers' Rivera plays youngsters, looks to future

jperson@charlotteobserver.comDecember 4, 2012 

Panthers coach Ron Rivera is looking toward the team’s future – one he hopes to still be a part of next season.

A day after the Panthers were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs after losing to the NFL’s worst team, Rivera said he wants to get a look at the team’s younger players over the final four games.

“It is about winning, don’t get me wrong, because I intend to win or try to win every one of these games we play. But at the same time, we’ve got to be able to do it with these young guys. If we don’t play these guys, we’ll go into next season with the same questions,” Rivera said Monday.

“People say, ‘Oh you’re just getting them ready for the next coach.’ Well, I think I’m getting them ready for me. I could be wrong, but I’m not going to worry about that. I’m worried about each game, the next four games, and going forward we’ll see what happens.”

When general manager Marty Hurney was fired in October, Rivera said owner Jerry Richardson told him he wanted to see the team “trend upward” the latter part of the season. The Panthers (3-9) have lost four of six games since Hurney’s firing, and are tied with the Eagles for the NFC’s worst record.

Sunday’s 27-21 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs – who entered the game with an NFL-worst 1-10 record – assured the Panthers of their third consecutive losing season and the 11th in their 18-year history.

The Panthers are 9-19 under Rivera, who has two years remaining on his contract after this season.

Rivera, who is 1-12 in games decided by a touchdown or less, said he has had no recent discussions with Richardson, but expects to finish the season at a minimum.

“The last time I talked with him, things were good in terms of things I needed to do, and I understood the circumstances,” Rivera said. “As I see it, he’s been very fair and very open about it.”

A week after facing the lowly Chiefs, the Panthers will face Atlanta, which has the NFL’s best record at 11-1. The Falcons, who have already clinched the NFC South title, came from behind to beat the Panthers 30-28 in Atlanta in Week 4.

Four Panthers rookies have started every game – linebacker Luke Kuechly, left guard Amini Silatolu, cornerback Josh Norman and punter Brad Nortman. But injuries have forced Rivera to rely on more young players.

The Panthers put veteran defensive tackle Ron Edwards on injured reserve last week, although his dislocated elbow did not require surgery. Second-year defensive tackle Sione Fua started in Edwards’ spot at Kansas City, and young backups Andre Neblett and Frank Kearse also saw action there.

Rookie free safety D.J. Campbell, the team’s seventh-round pick, played for the first time this season against the Chiefs after Haruki Nakamura and Sherrod Martin left the game with injuries. With Martin headed to the injured reserve with torn ligaments in his right knee, Campbell could get more playing time, Rivera said.

Other rookies who could see increased playing time include defensive end Frank Alexander, defensive tackle Nate Chandler, cornerback Josh Thomas and wideout Joe Adams.

“We have a lot of guys who are active as far as the D-line is concerned with the young players out there playing and showing us what they can do,” Rivera said. “We need to look at things we need to do with the linebackers and the same with the defensive backs. We have some good young talent developing and playing more and more.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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