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Pressure is on Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers

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Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
Head coach Ron Rivera and the Carolina Panthers face an important game Sunday with the New York Giants: Win or fall to 0-3 and an uncertain future.

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In explaining his much-discussed decision to take a field goal rather than go for it on fourth-and-1 in last week’s 24-23 loss to Buffalo, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he thought Week 2 was too soon to begin coaching with abandon.

“That point in time, this early in the season, I don’t think you throw caution to the wind or play desperate,” Rivera said. “We’re going to the point where certain things, a sense of urgency has to be playing into things. This (game against the Giants) is one of those things.”

But it’s gotten late early for Rivera this season.

His future was in doubt in 2012 after the Panthers started 2-8 for the second consecutive season. The slow start led to the ouster of general manager Marty Hurney, who hired Rivera in January 2011.

Team owner Jerry Richardson decided to retain Rivera for a third season after the Panthers won five of their final six games last season to finish 7-9.

But an 0-2 start this year — coupled with an early bye week that falls after Sunday’s game against New York — has prompted speculation Richardson could fire Rivera if the Panthers lose to the winless Giants and drop to 0-3.

The Panthers have never fired a head coach during the season. Richardson let John Fox coach through a lame-duck 2010 season that produced a 2-14 record, rather than firing Fox and paying for two head coaches.

But Richardson fired Hurney in October last year — a day after a 19-14 loss to Dallas following a bye week dropped the Panthers to 1-5.

Richardson has not made any public comments about Rivera’s status. Through a team spokesman, Richardson and first-year general manager Dave Gettleman declined comment for this article.

Rivera is in the third year of a four-year deal worth a reported $11.2 million. He talked generally in recent days about dealing with distractions but declined to elaborate on his job status.

“I’m not going there. I have no concern about that,” Rivera said. “We play the Giants this week.”

But he said he’s surprised to find his team in an early-season hole after losing to Seattle and Buffalo by a total of six points.

“In my wildest dreams I didn’t expect to be where we are right now,” Rivera said. “We had opportunities to win both games, and I expect to win both of them. It didn’t work that way. That’s what’s disappointing.”

Offensive coordinators

After offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski left to become Cleveland’s head coach in January, Rivera had a vacancy for one of the most important positions on his staff.

On the surface, the Panthers’ offensive coordinator’s post looked to be an appealing job. Quarterback Cam Newton had thrown for more passing yards his first two seasons than anyone in NFL history, and the Panthers had play-makers at receiver, tight end and the backfield.

But two of the coaches Rivera had interest in — Norv Turner and Ken Whisenhunt — ended up as coordinators for newly-hired head coachs in Cleveland and San Diego respectively.

Turner, the former Chargers coach whom Rivera worked for in San Diego, followed Chudzinski to Cleveland, where quarterback Brandon Weeden had a 5-10 record as a rookie starter and was among the lowest-rated passers in the league.

Whisenhunt, after being fired in Arizona, went to San Diego with former Panthers assistant Mike McCoy.

Meanwhile, Rivera interviewed two other former head coaches — Hue Jackson and Pat Shurmur — before promoting Mike Shula from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator.

Rivera stressed continuity as the main reason for giving the job to Shula, who was Tampa Bay’s coordinator from 1996-99. During Shula’s tenure, the Bucs finished 29th in total offense, 27th in points scored and last in the NFL in passing.

Shula has committed to a more traditional rushing attack than Chudzinski’s reliance on the zone read. The Panthers enter Sunday’s game ranked sixth in rushing, but are near the bottom in the league in scoring, passing and total offfense.

Rivera, a successful defensive coordinator in Chicago and San Diego before Hurney hired him, fired special teams coordinator Brian Murphy after a Week 10 loss to Denver last year, made several other staff changes at the end of last season.

Rivera knows his job is now on the line — he has often said he coaches for his job every week. He’s just surprised the scrutiny has started so soon.

“This is new ground for me,” Rivera said. “I’m fortunate I’ve got some guys who have been through these tough times and I’ve talked to several of them a couple of times. I’ve got some friends in the league that I call and talk with. And obviously talk with my family, talk with my wife. You always find a source of inspiration somewhere.”

Beason: Right defense

The demoralizing nature of the Buffalo loss — rookie quarterback EJ Manuel drove the Bills 80 yards for the game-winning touchdown with two seconds left — was a crushing defeat that veteran linebacker Jon Beason said would stick with him throughout his career.

Team employees described an ominous atmosphere at Bank of America Stadium on Monday morning, when coaches broke down film of another fourth-quarter letdown during Rivera’s tenure.

The loss was the Panthers’ 10th under Rivera in which they’d coughed up a fourth-quarter lead. It left them with a 2-14 record in games decided by seven points or fewer in Rivera’s two-plus seasons.

Rivera’s playing experience — he spent nine years as a linebacker with the Bears — gives him credibility in the locker room. Several players said this week they like and respect the easygoing Rivera as both a man and coach.

But they understand it’s a bottom-line business.

“It’s two games into the season. We’ve got 14 more games to go. It’s a long season. But we’ve got to start winning these games that we’re supposed to win. That’s the key,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said.

“You can’t leave those games out there because we can look down the road, and if at the end of the year we end up being 8-8 or 10-6, one of these games that we lost early in the year can keep us out of the playoffs,” Munnerlyn added. “That’s the key, man — you’ve got to win the games you’re supposed to win, especially when you’ve been up in these games.”

Rivera’s game management in the final minutes of the Buffalo loss has been questioned. But Beason, the veteran linebacker, said the Panthers were in the right defensive scheme and didn’t execute it.

“We had an opportunity to play a lot better and we know we could’ve played a lot better. When you’re the head man or the quarterback, a lot of the blame falls on you, even though it’s not just you. We all had faults in the game,” Beason said.

“It’s unfortunate because we could very easily be sitting here 2-0 and everyone’s saying, ‘Hey, the Panthers are back,’ if one play in any of those games were different,” Beason said. “And we know that. But at the end of the day, there’s no reward for almost.”

The next game

Rivera, who is 13-21 as the Panthers’ coach, seemed relaxed and affable — as he usually is — last week in his dealings with the media.

While meeting with reporters after Thursday’s practice, Rivera walked into the media room in stocking feet while sipping a venti-sized Starbucks’ coffee.

Someone asked whether it was decaf.

“Oh, no,” Rivera said. “I’ve got to watch 100, 101 plays a day.”

Rivera said the NFL leaves coaches no time to worry about their fate.

“The thing about this league is there’s the next game, the next game, the next game,” he said. “You don’t get a lot of time to think about it. You’ve got to try to learn from it as fast as you can and move on to the next one, and I think that’s the most important thing. ...

“The hard thing, too, and the thing that people don’t understand is I’ve got to be upbeat for 61 players and for 20 coaches. For me to bury my head in the sand is not going to get it done. That’s my approach, is there’s another week. There’s another opportunity. We’ll go out there and give it our best, and we expect to win.”

Giants coach Tom Coughlin called that putting the blinders on, and said coaches can’t afford to be affected by what’s being said outside the organization.

“It’s not a very good, or likeable topic to discuss, I don’t care what end of the spectrum you’re on,” Coughlin said. “I know Ron is an outstanding football coach and I saw exactly what they did last year (when) they won five out of the last six. Certainly that was very representative of his ability to hold this team together and do a good job coaching his team.”

Ryan Kalil, the Panthers’ Pro Bowl center, called Rivera a “really good football coach” and a “great man.”

“He’s somebody that players respect, both for what he brings to the team and his unique perspective as a former player,” Kalil said.

Kalil said players deserve blame for slow start, as well.

“Oh, yeah, 100 percent. It’s what makes not winning that much harder, too,” Kalil said. “He’s a great man. He’s got a great support group around him of hard-working, experienced football coaches. It’s frustrating. It’s absolutely frustrating.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
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