PHOENIX — Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera is working for a general manager who didn’t hire him and an owner who made Rivera wait a week after last season before telling him he would return in 2013.
That seems like a precarious position for a third-year coach whose first two Carolina teams finished with losing records and out of the playoffs.
But Rivera was his typical relaxed and candid self Wednesday at the league meetings, where he indicated he has not been given a win-or-else ultimatum and took umbrage at the suggestion the Panthers have been bystanders during the first two weeks of free agency.
“We’ve got time. I’m not sure why people think that if you don’t do something in the first two days, you don’t care,” Rivera said during a media breakfast with the other NFC coaches.
“If the prices keep going down on players, people become involved again. So we’ll see,” Rivera added. “This is only the beginning of the second week of it, so we’ll see how things unfold.”
Sitting about $3 million below the $123 million salary cap, the Panthers’ only acquisitions have been defensive backs Drayton Florence, D.J. Moore and Mike Mitchell, none of whom were starters last season. They’ve cut ties with three defensive starters, including two – cornerback Chris Gamble and linebacker James Anderson – who played in more games at their positions than anyone in team history.
Yet, Rivera said he does not feel hamstrung as he enters the next-to-last year of his four-year contract.
“By no means,” he said. “I think we have quality football players on our team. We have young guys that are waiting for opportunities. As I said, there’s a lot of good players out there that are still looking for homes.”
Repeating a theme he discussed at the combine last month, Rivera said he wants to find playmakers and/or protection for quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the team’s last two first-round picks and each a Rookie of the Year honoree.
The Panthers cut veteran nose tackle Ron Edwards and offered a 1-year deal to free agent defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, who is seeking a longer contract. Rivera said he hopes the Panthers can re-sign Dwan Edwards, whose six sacks in 2012 were the most by a Panthers defensive tackle in 10 years.
If not, they would be dangerously thin at the position most responsible for keeping blockers off Kuechly, who led the league in tackles as a rookie. One of the players Rivera mentioned as a possible replacement at defensive tackle was Colin Cole, who was out of football for two seasons before the Panthers signed him in February.
“We have some components in front right now,” Rivera said. “Do we have to add to it? Without a doubt.”
The Panthers also have needs on the offensive line and in the secondary, where Rivera is looking to replace Gamble and find help at strong safety. Even at linebacker, their strongest position on defense, the Panthers have questions.
Most of them involve the health of Jon Beason, who missed most of the past two seasons and undergone three surgeries to fix Achilles, shoulder and knee injuries. Beason has played in five games since signing a five-year, $51.5 million extension in 2011.
“I know he’s still got it. It’s just hopefully staying healthy,” Rivera said. “I think he has, like Thomas Davis, a unique skill set. His athleticism, his physicality, his football intensity, there is no question he has that. Again, knock on wood, hopefully the third time’s the charm.”
Davis returned last season from his third ACL surgery to start the final 12 games and finish second behind Kuechly for the team lead in tackles. But by cutting Anderson, the Panthers lost their best insurance plan in the event Davis or Beason are re-injured.
The other four linebackers on the roster have been primarily special teams players.
But Rivera said it’s too soon to grade the Panthers on the offseason moves they’ve made – or haven’t made.
“I wouldn’t say we’re not doing a lot in free agency. I’d say what we’re doing is probably a lot like the other half of the league, and that’s waiting to see how things unfold,” Rivera said. “There are a lot of gluts at a lot of positions. Corner’s one of them. Defensive line’s the other.”
Rivera, who is 13-19 in two seasons, said he doesn’t know whether he has to make the playoffs to keep his job. His Panthers’ tenure to this point has been marked by an inability to win close games and teams that start slowly before playing well down the stretch after they’ve been eliminated from the postseason.
“I do know I will be evaluated like I was last year. Everybody gets evaluated,” Rivera said. “There was a coach (Chicago’s Lovie Smith) that was 10-6 and got released. And they didn’t make the playoffs. Ten-and-6 did not make the playoffs. So to say, do you have to make the playoffs? I don’t know.”