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.”