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Rivera deserves another season

Ron Rivera deserves one more chance as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach.

Panthers owner Jerry Richardson should allow Rivera to coach the team for a third straight season in 2013 – with one caveat:

If the Panthers make the playoffs in 2013, Rivera stays.

If they don’t, he goes.

I’m not writing that Rivera should get one more year because he’s a nice guy – although he is. I’m not writing it because I want Richardson to save some money in severance pay – he has plenty to burn either way.

I’m writing it because I think Rivera is improving as a head coach, and firing him now would simply set the Panthers (5-9) stumbling backward once again. Rivera should be given one more year to see whether he can get it right. Richardson has never fired a head coach after only two seasons – even George Seifert lasted three – and he shouldn’t start now.

Panthers victories in the past two weeks – especially the win against Atlanta Dec. 9 – have shown me this team doesn’t need to be completely erased from existence so that someone else can begin with a blank slate.

The Carolina team needs more change, yes. But have you noticed? The change has already begun.

In the past five weeks, Cam Newton has morphed into a far more mature quarterback on the field. His streak of 152 passes without an interception is the NFL’s longest active one. The Panthers’ pass-rushing ends – Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson – have teamed with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to form a Bermuda triangle in the center of the defense. The special teams have gotten steadier since Rivera made a midseason coaching change there.

Ever since Richardson fired his close friend – general manager Marty Hurney – after the Panthers began the season 1-5, speculation has intensified that Rivera will also be fired once the 2012 season ends. The Panthers finish up Dec. 30 at New Orleans.

Rivera sounds like a man who honestly doesn’t know what’s going to happen. He did say Monday he is sure that Richardson will decide his fate, not whomever the team’s new general manager will be.

I asked Rivera Monday if he thought he was a better coach now than he was when he took over in 2011.

“Without a doubt in my mind,” said Rivera, who is finishing up the second year of his original four-season contract. “I think the biggest thing is management, more than anything else. ... I'll put myself up against anybody with X’s and O’s. I feel very confident about that. But I've had to learn a lot about management. When you're managing 26 people and five coaches [as a defensive coordinator] and now you're managing 61 people and 17 coaches, it's a little bit different.”

Rivera admits to managerial mistakes – sometimes delegating too much, sometimes not enough. He knows he probably should have hired at least one older former head coach for his first Panthers staff to help mentor him.

I’ve criticized Rivera for his inconsistent clock management and decision-making in the final two minutes of each half. I think he’s been a little too conservative. He doesn’t go for it on fourth-and-1 enough, for instance. See Sunday’s San Diego game for an example of all the good things can happen when your offensive players know you believe in them.

This Rivera endorsement also should not be read as a blank-check endorsement of the Panthers as a franchise. I do agree with several of the points raised in the full-page ad purchased in the Observer Monday by a group calling itself “Perturbed Panther PSL Owners Federation,” including their criticism of the 76-year-old Richardson for so rarely speaking publicly and for not disclosing a succession plan. The group’s general complaints that the Panthers have missed the playoffs 14 times in 18 years and have never posted consecutive winning seasons are also valid and are among the reasons that Hurney was fired.

But I don’t agree with the anonymous ad’s premise that Rivera is a bewildered, in-over-his-head, bad coach. I would say Rivera right now is average as an NFL head man. He’s only 11-19, but remember that he inherited a 2-14 team.

I also think Rivera has the potential to get better in the same way that Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak got better. Kubiak had only one winning season in his first five. The Texans stuck with him despite public pressure, and Houston has gone 10-6 and 12-2 the past two years.

Will Rivera ever be Bill Belichick? No. But who’s to say the Panthers would find anybody anywhere near Belichick if they fired Rivera? Richardson’s track record with hiring head coaches hasn’t exactly been exemplary.

Of course, Richardson is going to do what he wants on Dec. 31. It’s his team, and that’s his prerogative. I know many of you won’t like what I’m writing here and will root for Richardson to give Rivera a pink slip, arguing that two years is too long already.

But consider this one vote for keeping Rivera one more year and letting him try to finish the job.

If the job isn’t done by December 2013 and the Panthers still aren’t in the playoffs, then Rivera is not going to get it done. Fire him.

But I think if they give him one more season, Rivera will show that he can be the coach the Panthers wanted him to be in the first place.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler
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