Doubting Rivera? Who else would do?

Maybe a victory against the Saints will save his job; or maybe it’s already gone

jperson@charlotteobserver.comDecember 29, 2012 

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Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera looks on during warmups prior to playing the Atlanta Falcons at Bank of America Stadium on December 9, 2012. David T. Foster III-dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

DAVID T. FOSTER III — dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

  • Coaching candidates Ron Rivera enters Sunday’s game with his future very much in doubt. A list of potential head-coaching targets for the Panthers should owner Jerry Richardson decide to make a change. (in alphabetical order) Perry Fewell Age: 50 Current position: Giants defensive coordinator Why he’s on the list: Fewell, a Cramterton native and Lenoir-Rhyne graduate, made a good impression when he interviewed with the Panthers before Rivera was hired. But the Giants rank 30th in total defense and it’s debatable whether Carolina would want to consider him again. Chip Kelly Age: 49 Current position: Oregon head coach Why he’s on the list: Kelly is the hot name right now because of his innovative, quick-strike offense and his 45-7 record in four years at Oregon. Kelly was offered the Tampa Bay job last offseason, and figures to have multiple offers this go-round. Mike McCoy Age: 40 Current position: Denver offensive coordinator Why he’s on the list: McCoy held a variety of offensive coaching positions for the Panthers under former coach John Fox. After overhauling the Broncos’ offense last season to fit Tim Tebow’s skill set, McCoy made a seamless and successful transition with Peyton Manning behind center. Greg Roman Age: 40 Current position: San Francisco offensive coordinator Why he’s on the list: Roman spent seven years as a low-level assistant with the Panthers, beginning as an assistant strength coach during the inaugural 1995 season. Roman, who was with Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, was a finalist for the Penn State job before Bill O’Brien was hired.
  • Roster analysis The Panthers’ next general manager will have important personnel decisions to make while dealing with a challenging salary cap situation. The Panthers currently are about $15 million over next year’s projected cap. The Observer’s Joseph Person rates the Panthers’ key players, based on their potential future impact:
    NAME POS. SIGNED THROUGH COMMENT
    FRANCHISE PLAYERS:
    These are the players the Panthers can and should build around.
    Cam Newton QB 2014 Improved as a leader, decision-maker and complete QB the second half of the season.
    Ryan Kalil C 2016 Should return to Pro Bowl form following October foot surgery.
    Steve Smith WR 2016 The franchise’s all-time receiving leader has at least two more good years left.
    Luke Kuechly LB 2015 The league’s top tackler and leader of the defense.
    Charles Johnson DE 2016 With Greg Hardy, part of one of the best pass-rushing tandems in the league.
    Greg Hardy DE 2013 Early priority for next GM should be locking up Hardy with contract extension.
    KEY STARTERS:
    Players who have had key roles and likely will continue to do so.
    Jordan Gross OL 2014 Still playing at a high level while protecting Newton’s blind side.
    Jonathan Stewart RB 2017 Ankle injuries have limited Stewart to nine games this season.
    Greg Olsen TE 2015 Established career highs with 65 catches for 800 yards in best season by a Panthers’ TE.
    Brandon LaFell WR 2013 Like Hardy, his performance this season likely earned him a new contract.
    Amini Silatolu G 2015 Technique improved as he played nearly every snap before wrist injury last week.
    Thomas Davis LB 2015 The NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year in any other season but this one.
    Charles Godfrey S 2016 Sound tackler who can play either safety spot.
    PLAYERS WITH UNCERTAIN FUTURES:
    Players with questions marks surrounding either abilities, contract status or injuries.
    DeAngelo Williams RB 2015 Depending on next GM’s philosophy, Williams could be traded to team looking for proven runner.
    Armanti Edwards WR 2013 Doubtful next GM will be as impressed with Edwards as Marty Hurney.
    Louis Murphy WR 2012 No. 3 wideout is eligible for free agency.
    Chris Gamble CB 2014 Coming off shoulder surgery and has a $10.9 million cap figure next year.
    Jon Beason LB 2016 Has played in only five games since signing $51.5 million contract extension.
    James Anderson LB 2015 Injuries have limited effectiveness a year after breaking club record for tackles.
    Captain Munnerlyn CB 2012 Best suited as a nickel back; has two INTs for TDs this season.
    Ron Edwards DT 2013 Proven run-stuffer when healthy; will be 34 next season.
    Haruki Nakamura S 2014 Vulnerability to big plays cost him starting spot; groin injury ended season.
    Sherrod Martin S 2012 Athletic but inconsistent; not expected to be re-signed.
    Joe Adams PR 2015 Electric returner, but fumbling issues landed him in Ron Rivera’s doghouse.
    OTHER STARTERS/CONTRIBUTORS:
    Starters or players with limited roles who should be factors next season.
    Mike Tolbert RB 2015 Could see an expanded role if Williams is traded.
    Byron Bell OT 2013 Two-year starter has improved, but not an elite tackle.
    Geoff Hangartner G/C 2014 Should shift back to right guard with a healthy Kalil back.
    Josh Thomas CB 2014 Took Josh Norman’s starting role; was helped by strong pass rush.
    Brad Nortman P 2015 Rookie has to improve on NFL-worst 36.4-yard net average.
    GOOD VALUES:
    Low-cost veterans or young players who showed enough promise to keep on the roster.
    Dwan Edwards DT 2012 Great pickup who has five sacks after signing before opener.
    Frank Alexander DE 2015 Rookie’s 17 pressures are third on team behind Hardy and Johnson.
    Jason Phillips LB 2012 Filled in well for the injured Anderson; leads team with 16 tackles on special teams.
    Graham Gano K 2012 Viewed as a rental when he replaced Justin Medlock; has made 6-of-7 field goals.
    Colin Jones S 2014 Key special teams contributor on improved coverage units.

When Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson declined to renew John Fox’s contract, everyone in Charlotte knew the 2010 season would be Fox’s last with the Panthers.

That’s not the case with Ron Rivera, Fox’s successor.

Speculation about Rivera’s future has run rampant since Richardson fired general manager Marty Hurney in October, and told Rivera the team needed to trend upward for him to return. The Panthers (6-9) have gone 5-4 since Hurney’s dismissal, and take a three-game winning streak into New Orleans for Sunday’s game against the Saints.

The feeling around the Panthers’ offices at Bank of America Stadium is that Rivera stands a good chance of returning with a win over the 7-8 Saints. The Panthers would have ended the season on a four-game winning streak, with a sweep of New Orleans and win over Atlanta, which has the best record in the NFC.

A loss would leave the Panthers with the same record as Rivera’s first season. Rivera’s 1-12 mark in games decided by a touchdown or less – coupled with the fact that the GM who hired him is gone – could mean the end of his tenure with a loss to the Saints, particularly a lopsided defeat.

But with the exception of Richardson and his top lieutenants, presumably, no one seems to know for certain.

“When we went through a regime change with Fox, I think most people assumed it was happening leading up to the final game,” veteran offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. “This season’s completely different. I have no idea.”

Rivera, who is 12-19 in Carolina, has maintained the same stance over the past two months: His focus is on his team, not his future. He said Friday he has not obsessed over whether Sunday could be his final game with the Panthers.

“I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about playing the game, first and foremost,” Rivera said. “As I said, that’s not for me to determine. The only thing I can do is coach them, get them ready to play and go out and play the game, and we’ll go from there.”

Rivera, who has two years left on a four-year deal worth a reported $11.2 million, would not say whether he is scheduled to meet with Richardson on Monday. Richardson has made no public comments since firing Hurney.

“He’s been great. He’s been supportive, and he and I meet once a week,” Rivera said. “We sit down, we talk. He tells me what he likes, he tells me what he doesn’t like and we go from there. But he’s always been encouraging. He’s always been supporting.”

Interim general manager Brandon Beane commended Rivera for the way he has handled the past 10 weeks.

“I think he’s done a nice job of keeping this team together and motivated despite the situation we’ve been in,” Beane said. “Ron has handled a difficult season very well, and it shows by the recent success that we’ve had.”

The Panthers have won four of five games since blowing an 11-point, fourth-quarter lead in a deflating, overtime loss at home to Tampa Bay. Despite being out of playoff contention, the Panthers have continued to fight, tight end Greg Olsen said.

“I think these last couple weeks have demonstrated how much guys care about our staff and do want to play for them, and keep this thing intact. Because I do think we have the right guys in place to take us to the levels that we all feel we’re capable of,” Olsen said. “I don’t think we would have gone out and played as hard or played as well, and beat the teams we have if that wasn’t the case.”

With continued improvement from second-year quarterback Cam Newton and inspired defensive play, Rivera has taken several opportunities in recent weeks to point out his team’s growth. Despite a young, patched-together secondary, the Panthers rank among the top five defenses – overall and against the pass – since Week 5.

“We’ve done some good things. We have gotten better, we are trending,” Rivera said. “Again, it comes down to what decisions are going to be made and again, there’s nothing I can do about it. Just worry about one game at a time, and now this one.”

The Panthers’ defense will face a tough test in the Saints, who have rolled up 447 and 562 net yards the past two weeks in victories over Tampa Bay and Dallas. Quarterback Drew Brees needs 219 passing yards to become the first player to throw for at least 5,000 yards in back-to-back seasons (Detroit’s Matthew Stafford is within 305 yards of the feat).

Despite his situation, Rivera said he feels no more pressure for this game than any other.

“It’s about getting our players ready to play. That’s the only thing I can control,” he said. “I’m not sure where people talked about how many games we had to win or where they got the number. But the only thing I was ever concerned with was getting the next win.”

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