Like he has nearly every Monday over the past month, Panthers second-year head coach Ron Rivera was asked about his future a day after his team’s victory against Oakland.
“Well, the Saints,” Rivera said. “That’s where we are.”
Beyond the season finale Sunday in New Orleans, Rivera has no guarantees.
From the moment Panthers owner Jerry Richardson fired general manager Marty Hurney on Oct. 22, speculation has centered on whether Rivera would follow him out the door.
Richardson has said nothing publicly about the GM search or Rivera’s future. According to Rivera, Richardson told him he wanted to see the team “trend upward” over the final 10 weeks of the season.
The Panthers (6-9) have gone 5-4 since Hurney’s firing, winning four of their past five games. They were the last team to beat Washington, and one of only two teams to beat Atlanta.
The other four wins have come against teams with losing records. New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Diego and Oakland are a combined 21-39.
With a win Sunday in New Orleans against the Saints (7-8), the Panthers would finish in a tie for second place in the NFC South and a game better than their 6-10 record in Rivera’s first season.
It’s uncertain whether that would be enough to save Rivera, who is 1-12 in games decided by a touchdown or less.
“There are no assurances,” Rivera said. “(Richardson) has been steady, just as he’s always been. But it’s about getting our players ready to play one last game, and that’s the Saints, and we’re doing some really good things.”
Despite playing with a patchwork secondary, the Panthers have climbed to eighth in the league in total defense, allowing 325.9 yards per game. The Panthers have been one of the league’s top five defenses since Week 5, when rookie Luke Kuechly moved from outside to middle linebacker in place of the injured Jon Beason.
In wins against San Diego and Oakland the past two weeks, the Panthers allowed 164 and 189 total net yards – two of the top 14 defensive performances in team history.
Offensively, the Panthers again rank among the top teams in plays of 20 yards or more, with 68. That’s a drop-off from last season, when the Panthers were first (with 90) in what offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski calls “big-chunk plays.”
“I really like the way the guys have stayed focused,” Rivera said. “I think some of the things the guys said after the game about playing for each other, coming out and practicing, that’s very gratifying as a coach to know your players are hearing the messages you’re sending.”
Veteran wideout Steve Smith was among the players who said they were pleased to get a win for Rivera in what might have been his final home game.
“With all the adversity going on with coach, everybody’s job is on the line, no matter what – despite how the season goes, because that’s just the way football is,” Smith said.
“But at the same time it’s great to fight for a guy that believes in us. We believe in him,” Smith added. “It was a great way to show our appreciation for the tolerance he has of our mistakes that he takes blame for.
“And it gives us an opportunity to say, hey, look at our coach. Look at what he’s doing for us.”
Rivera’s future could be tied to the next GM. Former Giants GM Ernie Accorsi is assisting Richardson with the search, which will pick up steam next week when the Panthers can begin talking to candidates working for teams whose seasons have ended.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Sunday that Giants director of college scouting Marc Ross has emerged as the leading candidate. Two league sources confirmed Ross is on the Panthers’ list but said that characterizing him as the lead was premature.
Meanwhile, Rivera said he and his staff will enjoy Christmas, then resume preparations for the final game of the season – and possibly for good.
“It’s about getting our players ready and going forward,” Rivera said. “We’ll see. Once it’s all said and done, we’ll see.”
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