Every year, there’s a surprise team in our projections, adark horse that we expect will rise from a losing record toa Super Bowl contender. This year, that team is the CarolinaPanthers.There’s a lot to like about the talent on this squad. CamNewton is a superstar quarterback going into his third season,and his continued development should vault the offenseforward several notches. The defense features a potentiallydominant front seven, led by another young blossoming starin Luke Kuechly, which should cover up for some questionmarks in the secondary. They finished the year on a four-gamewinning streak, which inspired hope for the following season.For all those positive signs, though, there is one big weaknessthat can’t be ignored, and for that reason we’re subjectivelyskeptical of our objective optimism. It’s not the lack ofdepth at receiver that has us worried, nor the shaky status ofthe secondary, though those are certainly viable concerns. Infact, it’s not a player that has us worried at all. It’s the headcoach. Through two seasons, Ron Rivera has done little toshow that he’s capable of managing an NFL team on Sundays,and that will likely be the reason Carolina comes upshort again this year.Rivera played nine seasons for the Chicago Bears in the1980s and ‘90s, including three seasons as a starter. He wasan NFL assistant coach every season from 1997 to 2010, includingstints as defensive coordinator for Chicago (2004-06)and San Diego (2008-10). The Carolina Panthers hired him ashead coach following their disastrous 2-14 campaign in 2010.Since then, Rivera and the Panthers have gone 13-19. That’snot horrible, especially considering the state of the team whenRivera took over. Yet closer examination suggests that thePanthers have the talent to win even more games, and Riveraand his staff are holding the team back. That’s not just ouropinion, either. Unfortunately for Rivera, it may be the opinionof the man who signs his paychecks.In fact, Rivera has been fighting to keep his head above watersince his first day on the job. ESPN’s Chris Mortensen hasreported that Panthers owner Jerry Richardson disapproved ofthe hire, and had to be talked into the move by then-generalmanager Marty Hurney. It didn’t help Rivera’s case when thePanthers lost eight of their first ten games in 2011, but withfirst-overall draft pick Cam Newton putting up stellar fantasynumbers, at least the team’s fans had something to cheer for.
Then they won four of their next five games, a strong finishthat seemed to justify Hurney’s decision and raised expectationsfor the following season.
Those expectations were dashed when the Panthers opened2012 by going 1-5. The fifth loss in that stretch, a 14-19 fall-from-ahead defeat at home against the Cowboys, led to Hurney’sdismissal after a decade with the team. Three weekslater, special teams coach Brian Murphy was fired. (Not thatit did any good—in the next game, Carolina fumbled a punt,missed a field-goal attempt, and lost four yards on a fake puntgone wrong.) With heads rolling in Charlotte, Rivera seemeddestined for the chopping block, but he survived to finish theyear. That was his first escape of the season, but it wouldn’tbe his last.
Hurney’s firing failed to motivate the club, which proceededto lose three out of the next four games. Once the Pantherssunk to 2-8, however, they rallied just like the year before:they won five of their last six games, including each of theirlast four. Consensus opinion said this was all too little, too latefor Rivera, and Michael Lombardi of NFL Network (he hadnot yet left for the Browns) reported that the Panthers wouldmake a change. Nevertheless, as one coach after another wasfired on Black Monday, Rivera somehow lived to see anotherday. That four-game win streak to end the year had earnedRivera one more season in charge. Not all his coaches wereretained, however. Running backs coach John Settle, receiverscoach Fred Graves, and linebackers coach Warren Belin wereshown the door, decisions that Rivera insists were his and hisalone. Whether that’s true or the firings were ordered fromupon high, the sense of urgency is clear: It’s win or bust forRivera this season, and he’d better win right away.
They predict 9-10 wins and put our Post Season odds at 58.4%. The biggest issue? Ron Rivera.
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