Coach Ron Rivera enters this Carolina Panthers training camp knowing very well that it might be his last.
Then again, this could be Rivera’s dream season as a head coach, with a talented team orbiting around young stars Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly.
One way or the other, it will be crucial to his future. His third season as Carolina’s coach will either make Rivera – who has gone 13-19 in his first two seasons – or it will break him.
“I can’t worry about it,” Rivera said Tuesday of the possibility of him getting fired after this season. “But it’s there. To a degree, it is that white elephant in the room.”
Carolina owner Jerry Richardson waited six days before deciding to retain Rivera for 2013. In a 25-minute interview on the eve of training camp with the Observer, Rivera went out of his way several times to praise Richardson, calling the owner a “mentor” and saying he had offered constant “support” throughout the ups and downs of 2012.
Rivera is a realist, however. He knows that support from on high could erode quickly if the Panthers get off to another bad start in 2013, just as it does in countless other cities with countless other NFL owners who get tired of losing.
“It can happen at any moment,” Rivera said. “In the last few years we’ve seen coaches get fired after their first year, after their second year and after successful years. So I don’t think it’s any different. I’m not going to spend time worrying about it.”
It’s difficult to imagine Rivera, 51, would get another NFL head-coaching job anytime soon – and maybe not ever – if he posts a third straight losing season. Then again, a winning record in 2013 coupled with the Panthers’ first playoff berth since the 2008 season could earn the coach a contract extension (he originally signed a four-year deal).
As I’ve written before, Rivera deserved this final shot. Richardson did the right thing by retaining him for 2013. I am bullish on the Panthers’ chances this season. I think they will surprise many people, finishing 10-6 and make the playoffs.
But if I’m wrong and they don’t have a winning season, Rivera should be replaced. He needs to exhibit more growth as a head coach this season, just as his team – which is 2-12 in his tenure in games decided by seven points or fewer – needs to exhibit more resilience.
Rivera has sought advice in several quarters in the 2013 offseason. He spent a whole day in California with the legendary John Madden, the former Oakland Raiders coach and NFL broadcaster. Rivera had met Madden as a high school player and the two have kept up with each other over the years. Rivera said the meeting was “great.”
Rivera said Madden told him to stress three fundamentals with his players: Be on time. Pay attention. Play hard. More than that, he told Rivera it was important to explain the “why” of his decisions to the team – a thought Rivera has taken to heart.
I believe Rivera did improve as a coach from Year One to Year Two. Remember, he had never been a head coach before the Panthers hired him in 2011.
“If you’ve never been a head coach at pretty much any level,” Rivera said, “there are a lot of things that come and slap you in the face. Quite honestly, that’s what it was. There were some very abrupt things that I had to learn and learn quickly. I made some mistakes along the way. But I like to think I grew from those mistakes.”
Rivera has too often been conservative during his fourth-quarter game management. But he did take more risks in the second half of 2012, when Carolina went 5-3 to finish 7-9 overall.
The coach is such a naturally nice guy that sometimes I don’t believe Rivera has always come down hard enough on those not doing things the way he wanted them to. But he promised that will change, too. When I asked him if he planned to be tougher this season, he responded, “Very much so.”
“Things have to be done the way I want them done – exactly,” Rivera added.
He should demand that. He must. Rivera has got to do it his way, because he’s the one who will have to hit the highway if it doesn’t work out.
But Rivera – whose Panthers report Thursday to Spartanburg – stressed that saving his job is not the primary goal in 2013. Winning is. Saving his job would just be a nice byproduct.
Rivera said he will put every bit of his energy into winning this season. “No matter what happens, it will be my best,” he said. “At the end of the day, I believe it’s going to be good enough.”
Scott Fowler: email@example.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler
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