When Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson declined to renew John Foxs contract, everyone in Charlotte knew the 2010 season would be Foxs last with the Panthers.
Thats not the case with Ron Rivera, Foxs successor.
Speculation about Riveras future has run rampant since Richardson fired general manager Marty Hurney in October, and told Rivera the team needed to trend upward for him to return. The Panthers (6-9) have gone 5-4 since Hurneys dismissal, and take a three-game winning streak into New Orleans for Sundays game against the Saints.
The feeling around the Panthers offices at Bank of America Stadium is that Rivera stands a good chance of returning with a win over the 7-8 Saints. The Panthers would have ended the season on a four-game winning streak, with a sweep of New Orleans and win over Atlanta, which has the best record in the NFC.
A loss would leave the Panthers with the same record as Riveras first season. Riveras 1-12 mark in games decided by a touchdown or less coupled with the fact that the GM who hired him is gone could mean the end of his tenure with a loss to the Saints, particularly a lopsided defeat.
But with the exception of Richardson and his top lieutenants, presumably, no one seems to know for certain.
When we went through a regime change with Fox, I think most people assumed it was happening leading up to the final game, veteran offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. This seasons completely different. I have no idea.
Rivera, who is 12-19 in Carolina, has maintained the same stance over the past two months: His focus is on his team, not his future. He said Friday he has not obsessed over whether Sunday could be his final game with the Panthers.
Im not worried about that. Im worried about playing the game, first and foremost, Rivera said. As I said, thats not for me to determine. The only thing I can do is coach them, get them ready to play and go out and play the game, and well go from there.
Rivera, who has two years left on a four-year deal worth a reported $11.2 million, would not say whether he is scheduled to meet with Richardson on Monday. Richardson has made no public comments since firing Hurney.
Hes been great. Hes been supportive, and he and I meet once a week, Rivera said. We sit down, we talk. He tells me what he likes, he tells me what he doesnt like and we go from there. But hes always been encouraging. Hes always been supporting.
Interim general manager Brandon Beane commended Rivera for the way he has handled the past 10 weeks.
I think hes done a nice job of keeping this team together and motivated despite the situation weve been in, Beane said. Ron has handled a difficult season very well, and it shows by the recent success that weve had.
The Panthers have won four of five games since blowing an 11-point, fourth-quarter lead in a deflating, overtime loss at home to Tampa Bay. Despite being out of playoff contention, the Panthers have continued to fight, tight end Greg Olsen said.
I think these last couple weeks have demonstrated how much guys care about our staff and do want to play for them, and keep this thing intact. Because I do think we have the right guys in place to take us to the levels that we all feel were capable of, Olsen said. I dont think we would have gone out and played as hard or played as well, and beat the teams we have if that wasnt the case.
With continued improvement from second-year quarterback Cam Newton and inspired defensive play, Rivera has taken several opportunities in recent weeks to point out his teams growth. Despite a young, patched-together secondary, the Panthers rank among the top five defenses overall and against the pass since Week 5.
Weve done some good things. We have gotten better, we are trending, Rivera said. Again, it comes down to what decisions are going to be made and again, theres nothing I can do about it. Just worry about one game at a time, and now this one.
The Panthers defense will face a tough test in the Saints, who have rolled up 447 and 562 net yards the past two weeks in victories over Tampa Bay and Dallas. Quarterback Drew Brees needs 219 passing yards to become the first player to throw for at least 5,000 yards in back-to-back seasons (Detroits Matthew Stafford is within 305 yards of the feat).
Despite his situation, Rivera said he feels no more pressure for this game than any other.
Its about getting our players ready to play. Thats the only thing I can control, he said. Im not sure where people talked about how many games we had to win or where they got the number. But the only thing I was ever concerned with was getting the next win.
PANTHERS POTENTIAL COACHING CANDIDATES
Ron Rivera enters Sundays game with his future very much in doubt. A list of potential head-coaching targets for the Panthers should owner Jerry Richardson decide to make a change.
(in alphabetical order)
Current position: Giants defensive coordinator
Why hes on the list: Fewell, a Cramerton native and Lenoir-Rhyne graduate, made a good impression when he interviewed with the Panthers before Rivera was hired. But the Giants rank 30th in total defense and its debatable whether Carolina would want to consider him again.
Current position: Oregon head coach
Why hes on the list: Kelly is the hot name right now because of his innovative, quick-strike offense and his 45-7 record in four years at Oregon. Kelly was offered the Tampa Bay job last offseason, and figures to have multiple offers this go-round.
Current position: Denver offensive coordinator
Why hes on the list: McCoy held a variety of offensive coaching positions for the Panthers under former coach John Fox. After overhauling the Broncos offense last season to fit Tim Tebows skill set, McCoy made a seamless and successful transition with Peyton Manning behind center.
Current position: San Francisco offensive coordinator
Why hes on the list: Roman spent seven years as a low-level assistant with the Panthers, beginning as an assistant strength coach during the inaugural 1995 season. Roman, who was with Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, was a finalist for the Penn State job before Bill OBrien was hired.
CAROLINA PANTHERS ROSTER ANALYSIS
The Carolina Panthers' next general manager will have important personnel decisions to make while dealing with a challenging salary cap situation. The Panthers currently are about $15 million over next year's projected cap. The Observer's Joseph Person rates the Panthers' key players, based on their potential future impact:
|These are the players the Panthers can and should build around.|
|Cam Newton||QB||2014||Improved as a leader, decision-maker and complete QB the second half of the season.|
|Ryan Kalil||C||2016||Should return to Pro Bowl form following October foot surgery.|
|Steve Smith||WR||2016||The franchise's all-time receiving leader has at least two more good years left.|
|Luke Kuechly||LB||2015||The league's top tackler and leader of the defense.|
|Charles Johnson||DE||2016||With Greg Hardy, part of one of the best pass-rushing tandems in the league.|
|Greg Hardy||DE||2013||Early priority for next GM should be locking up Hardy with contract extension.|
|Players who have had key roles and likely will continue to do so.|
|Jordan Gross||OL||2014||Still playing at a high level while protecting Newton's blind side.|
|Jonathan Stewart||RB||2017||Ankle injuries have limited Stewart to nine games this season.|
|Greg Olsen||TE||2015||Established career highs with 65 catches for 800 yards in best season by a Panthers' TE.|
|Brandon LaFell||WR||2013||Like Hardy, his performance this season likely earned him a new contract.|
|Amini Silatolu||G||2015||Technique improved as he played nearly every snap before wrist injury last week.|
|Thomas Davis||LB||2015||The NFL's Comeback Player of the Year in any other season but this one.|
|Charles Godfrey||S||2016||Sound tackler who can play either safety spot.|
|PLAYERS WITH UNCERTAIN FUTURES:|
|Players with questions marks surrounding either abilities, contract status or injuries.|
|DeAngelo Williams||RB||2015||Depending on next GM's philosophy, Williams could be traded to team looking for proven runner.|
|Armanti Edwards||WR||2013||Doubtful next GM will be as impressed with Edwards as Marty Hurney.|
|Louis Murphy||WR||2012||No. 3 wideout is eligible for free agency.|
|Chris Gamble||CB||2014||Coming off shoulder surgery and has a $10.9 million cap figure next year.|
|Jon Beason||LB||2016||Has played in only five games since signing $51.5 million contract extension.|
|James Anderson||LB||2015||Injuries have limited effectiveness a year after breaking club record for tackles.|
|Captain Munnerlyn||CB||2012||Best suited as a nickel back; has two INTs for TDs this season.|
|Ron Edwards||DT||2013||Proven run-stuffer when healthy; will be 34 next season.|
|Haruki Nakamura||S||2014||Vulnerability to big plays cost him starting spot; groin injury ended season.|
|Sherrod Martin||S||2012||Athletic but inconsistent; not expected to be re-signed.|
|Joe Adams||PR||2015||Electric returner, but fumbling issues landed him in Ron Rivera's doghouse.|
|Starters or players with limited roles who should be factors next season.|
|Mike Tolbert||RB||2015||Could see an expanded role if Williams is traded.|
|Byron Bell||OT||2013||Two-year starter has improved, but not an elite tackle.|
|Geoff Hangartner||G/C||2014||Should shift back to right guard with a healthy Kalil back.|
|Josh Thomas||CB||2014||Took Josh Norman's starting role; was helped by strong pass rush.|
|Brad Nortman||P||2015||Rookie has to improve on NFL-worst 36.4-yard net average.|
|Low-cost veterans or young players who showed enough promise to keep on the roster.|
|Dwan Edwards||DT||2012||Great pickup who has five sacks after signing before opener.|
|Frank Alexander||DE||2015||Rookie's 17 pressures are third on team behind Hardy and Johnson.|
|Jason Phillips||LB||2012||Filled in well for the injured Anderson; leads team with 16 tackles on special teams.|
|Graham Gano||K||2012||Viewed as a rental when he replaced Justin Medlock; has made 6-of-7 field goals.|
|Colin Jones||S||2014||Key special teams contributor on improved coverage units.|