Carolina Panthers

Panthers' Rivera knows task is to win

jperson@charlotteobserver.comJuly 23, 2013 

PANTHERS_ROOKIE_CAMP_16

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera watches the players stretch during the team's rookie minicamp on Friday, May 10, 2013.

JEFF SINER — jsiner@charlotteobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Preseason schedule

    Aug. 9 8 p.m. vs. Chicago Bears

    Aug. 15 7:30 p.m. at Philadelphia Eagles

    Aug. 22 8 p.m. at Baltimore Ravens

    Aug. 29 7:30 p.m. vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

    Regular-season opener

    Sept. 8: 1 p.m. vs. Seattle Seahawks

— Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who had to wait six days last January before learning he would keep his job, was asked Tuesday whether first-year general manager Dave Gettleman had laid out clear expectations for Rivera’s third season.

“Other than winning?” Rivera said. “No.”

During a 25-minute interview Tuesday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium, Rivera discussed topics ranging from the development of quarterback Cam Newton as a leader to the health of running back Jonathan Stewart’s ankles to a defensive front seven Rivera expects to be very good.

But as Rivera indicated, the bottom line is winning. And the longtime defensive coordinator believes the Panthers are well equipped to do so.

If they don’t, Rivera, 13-19, realizes he might not be back for a fourth season.

“I’m not going to worry about that. If it happens, it happens,” Rivera said. “At the end of the day, I will give my best, I will do my best, I will implore our players to do their best and we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”

In Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, Rivera sees young, budding stars around whom the Panthers can build their offense and defense. By taking defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short with their first two draft picks, Rivera believes the team added quality players to a position group that was the strength of the defense in 2012.

While there are questions surrounding the secondary, Rivera hopes one of the young cornerbacks will step up and someone will emerge at strong safety. .

“The big question, obviously, is going to be strong safety,” Rivera said.

But there are others, including what steps Newton needs to make in his third year as a starter.

He has compiled a heap of impressive stats during his two seasons, but Rivera succeeded John Fox and Newton became the starting quarterback, the Panthers are 2-12 in games decided by a touchdown or less.

Newton, who won a national title with Auburn, has struggled with losing. His sideline pose – sitting alone on the bench with a towel draped over his head – prompted Rivera to refer to him as “Mr. Mopeyhead” during Newton’s record-breaking rookie season.

But the coach said he has seen Newton turn his attitude around. Newton, responding to a reporter’s question this year, said he’d like to be a team captain in the future.

Rivera said Newton is “on the path” to getting a ‘C’ on his jersey.

“The thing that he and I have talked about is that no matter how bad things are, you have to lead by example. I told him basically at one point, when all (heck’s) breaking loose on the ship, everybody’s looking up at the captain,” Rivera said.

“That’s the mentality you have to maintain. … He’s done a lot of good things and I’m very pleased with what he’s done.”

Rivera also likes the leadership traits demonstrated by Kuechly, who – like Newton – was an Associated Press Rookie of the Year. Kuechly won the defensive honor last year after becoming the first rookie to lead his team in tackles since San Francisco’s Patrick Willis during 2007.

“They both play the position where everybody looks to them. And I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen from both those guys,” Rivera said. “So I’m excited about what those two young guys can be because, quite honestly, they are going to be the future of this football team. And that’s who we’re building this football team around.”

Charles Godfrey, moved from strong safety to free safety near the end of last season, is the only secondary member assured of a starting spot. Free-agent acquisitions Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore will compete with Captain Munnerlyn, Josh Thomas and Josh Norman at cornerback, but there’s a big scrum vying for the strong safety job.

“People are going to say, ‘Well, you’re doing it by patchwork’ ” in the secondary, Rivera said. “But we’re doing it by guys that have had success, too.”

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