Ron Rivera believes it will take more than two convincing wins to get Panthers owner Jerry Richardson to keep Rivera as his coach.
The phrase “trending upward” has become as much a part of the lexicon around Bank of America Stadium in recent weeks as “Keep Pounding,” the team’s Sam Mills-inspired motto.
“Trend upward” was Richardson’s edict to Rivera when the owner fired general manager Marty Hurney in October. The Panthers have gone 4-4 since Hurney’s departure, including a 30-20 win over NFC-South champion Atlanta on Dec. 9 and Sunday’s 31-7 defeat of San Diego.
“I think we have to keep going,” Rivera said Monday. “This is not about a couple of good, emotional wins. It’s really about the whole body of work from a certain point on. And that’s what we’re looking for.”
The Panthers (5-9) close the season with a home game this week against Oakland (4-10) and a trip to New Orleans (6-8) on Dec. 30. Winning both games would give the Panthers a series sweep of the Saints and a 7-9 record, a one-game improvement from Rivera’s first season.
Richardson has not commented publicly on Rivera’s future. He is working with former New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi on the search for Hurney’s successor.
Rivera believes Richardson will decide his fate, not the new general manager.
“As I’ve said before, he’s been very open, very up front with me,” Rivera said. “We’ve talked about this year. And he said when it’s all said and done, he and I will talk about it as we go forward.”
After the Panthers lost to Kansas City to fall to 3-9, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said the team could salvage the season by winning out and at least improving on last season’s record. Following Sunday’s victory in San Diego, Munnerlyn said he thinks it would be tough to fire Rivera if the Panthers close the season on a four-game winning streak.
“I think it would be difficult (if) we’re a game better than last year. But you never know,” Munnerlyn said. “It’s a business. And we didn’t do what we were expected to do. Gotta see what happens and just keep working.”
After the Panthers won four of their final six games in 2011, expectations were high for Rivera’s second season. Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in the Observer predicting a Super Bowl title, and several analysts thought the Panthers would challenge for a playoff berth.
But the Panthers lost six of their first seven games – five by six points or fewer – and Hurney was gone by Week 7. The Panthers are 0-7 in games decided by a touchdown or less this season, and 1-12 in such games under Rivera.
Rivera, though, said Monday those close losses made players believe they weren’t far from being a good team.
“If you get beat like we did against the Giants (36-7) consistently, then it’s tough. It really is hard,” Rivera said. “But when you lose them close and you know you are better than that, like Greg Hardy said going into the Atlanta game, our guys all felt they were better than Atlanta. We really felt that way, and we went out and played that way.”
Rivera said he was not slighting the Falcons, who clinched the division with four games remaining. But Rivera said the way the Panthers played in a 30-28 loss at Atlanta in Week 4 gave them confidence.
“As long as your guys believe in what you’re doing and believe in what they can become, I think they’re going to continue to do this,” Rivera said. “I expect them to show up Wednesday, practice hard in preparation for Oakland, and then we’ll go forward to the next game after that.
“And from that point, who knows?”
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