Coaches get a little squirmy at this time of the season. It’s almost an NFL tradition.
When the final gun sounds on the final games of the year, the unemployment line will beckon a select few because their teams are not going to the playoffs. Some will survive the coach’s version of “The Turk,” the person, either the general manager or the owner, who delivers the news that you will no longer be a member of the team.
For some, like the Eagles’ Andy Reid or the Chargers’ Norv Turner, their fate has pretty much been determined, but other, in the case of the Jets’ Rex Ryan and the Panthers Ron Rivera, they have to wait.
In Rivera’s case, some thought it was a forgone conclusion after the way the Panthers began a season of many expectations. He was left to stew after the team’s GM was jettisoned and the only thing owner Jerry Richardson would say is that the team had to be “trending upward” if the head coach was to stick around.
Richardson has been conspicuously quiet in recent weeks and to give him the benefit of the doubt, it might have something to do with his search to replace the departed Marty Hurney as general manager. He has already hired Ernie Accorsi, a former GM himself, to help find the right person to make the on-field personnel decisions and who knows, Accorsi might just say he is the most qualified.
Rivera believes that Richardson will make the final decision and that could fly in the face of logic if he returns. Will he be able to work with the yet to be named GM? Wouldn’t the new man want to name his own field general? Unless something has already been done behind the scenes, no one will know until after Sunday’s finale in New Orleans.
Regardless of the outcome against the high powered Saints, Rivera has a legitimate case to make with Richardson on the “trending upward” issue. After starting 1-6, the Panthers are 5-3. Quarterback Cam Newton was about to self-destruct holding numerous postgame pity parties for himself, but Rivera got him back on track, in fact some actually believed he was playing better than his amazing Rookie of the Year season.
The Panthers were battered and bruised with a near franchise record of players on injured reserve and yet the team persevered. There were key players moved into unfamiliar spots or back to where they should have been, the most noticeable was shifting Luke Kuechly into his more natural middle linebacker position and he has responded with a chance at adding another Carolina rookie award, this time on the defensive side of the ball.
Speaking of the defense, no one expected the kind of season that unit has turned in to date. They are 13th best in points allowed, 15th against the run and 8th, yes you read that correctly, in both total yards allowed and passing yards. The Panthers’ defense may be the most underrated in the league and they have had their fair share of major injuries to boot.
The season will end with either the identical 6-10 record from a year ago or their best record since 2009 when the Panthers finished at .500 on the strength of a three-game winning streak. Right now they are on a three-game roll with one to go.
Ron Rivera is a good guy who is becoming a very good coach. You don’t become Vince Lombardi in two seasons. In fact the legendary Packers’ head coach didn’t reach double-digit wins until season three and that year he won it all. Rivera may not come away as a Super Bowl champion next year, if given the chance to return, but the Panthers are closer to their first postseason appearance since 2008 than many people think.
Richardson could do far worse if he cuts Rivera loose. He could do much better too. But why flip a coin on the future when you know what you already have? The best thing the Panthers’ owner can do on the traditional pink slip day is pat his head coach on the back, say, “Well done” then let the awaiting media know Ron Rivera will be on the sideline for his team in 2013.