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In My Opinion

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Panthers coach Ron Rivera deserves a new contract, but does DE Greg Hardy?

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/14/17/42/1019V7.Em.138.jpeg|316
    David T. Foster, III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
    Carolina Panthers defensive Greg Hardy (76) calls himself the Kraken and rushed the passer like crazy in 2013, accounting for a team record-tying 15 sacks. But signing him long-term might be too much of a risk.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/14/17/42/Tlku4.Em.138.jpeg|249
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has decisions to make on lots of contracts, but two of the biggest involve head coach Ron Rivera and defensive end Greg Hardy.

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera has just finished the third year on his original four-year contract, which was worth a reported $11.2 million.

If the coach does not get an extension in the offseason, a veil of uncertainty would float over the 2014 season.

You might remember that the last time the Panthers didn’t extend a coach’s contract when it got close to expiring, they let time run out on head coach John Fox – who posted a 2-14 record in his lame-duck year of 2010.

Rivera doesn’t deserve that uncertainty. What he deserves is a new deal.

Does Greg Hardy deserve a new deal of some sort, too? Certainly. The defensive end is otherworldly, and I mean that both in the sense of his physical talents and the fact that he seems to have migrated from another world.

But if I were the Panthers, I don’t give Hardy so much money that I am handcuffed the rest of this offseason.

Hardy is complicated. Do you invest six years and $75 million in a player who calls himself the “Kraken” and jokes about blacking out when his body is taken over by a mythological sea monster?

Maybe you do. The Panthers are undoubtedly a much better team when Hardy – who tied the team record with 15 sacks in 2013, but wasn’t much of a factor in the playoff loss to San Francisco – is crashing in from right defensive end.

But quite possibly the better answer for general manager Dave Gettleman is to use the franchise tag on Hardy, rent him at a high price (likely $12 million or so) for another year and see if he can do what he did in 2013 one more time.

As for Rivera, this one seems a no-brainer. Then again, I love to spend other people’s money.

The coach did a tremendous job in 2013, directing the Panthers to 12 wins, an NFC South division championship and their first playoff spot since 2008. The home playoff loss to San Francisco should not overshadow those accomplishments.

Rivera is a popular coach. Among players, staff, fans or media, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who has had personal contact with Rivera and doesn’t like him. But I’m not writing this because he’s a good guy. I’m writing it because he’s a very good coach, and one who has steadily improved since his rookie year as a head coach in 2011.

Rivera’s teams have gone from 6-10 to 7-9 to 12-5 this past season. He has morphed from a by-the-book, conservative coach to “Riverboat Ron” – a coach who gambles when necessary, manages the clock better in late-game situations and isn’t nearly as predictable as he used to be.

Rivera also makes it no secret that he is still learning to be a great head coach. That is a plateau he has not yet reached. But he has a chance.

Doing things like taking his players to dinner and asking them their honest opinions about everything is more evidence of that. Rivera isn’t a “my-way-or-the-highway” type of guy. Any employee is going to appreciate that from a boss. It’s part of the reason his players have completely bought into his philosophy.

Just as he did a year ago, Rivera will take a number of players out to dinner beginning Wednesday as he gets more input about how to best tweak this team. The first in the “Rendezvous with Ron” series of private dinner meetings will guest-star offensive tackle Jordan Gross.

How much money should Rivera make with this extension? I don’t pretend to know. But he should get a substantial raise, enough to put him in the top half of head coach pay in the league.

A coach with obvious job security is more attractive to the best free agents, who want to know that the team they are about to sign with isn’t about to start over with a new system and coaching staff one year later.

Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman did praise Rivera Tuesday in an end-of-season news conference .

“I have ultimate faith in Ron,” Gettleman said.

But the general manager also would not discuss Rivera’s contractual status or entertain questions about whether the team would extend the head coach’s contract.

“Again, we don’t talk about contracts,” Gettleman said.

Signing Rivera for the long term has to be done, though. Rivera’s pay won’t count against the salary cap. It’s just owner Jerry Richardson writing a bigger check.

The coach is the captain of a ship that has finally been turned around and pointed away from the icebergs and toward the islands. Give this man a lengthy contract extension.

As for Hardy? Releasing the Kraken – permanently – is certainly one of the options the Panthers are considering. But it’s not the one I would take.

The Panthers should either strike a reasonable long-term deal or else use their franchise tag on Hardy. And then, if he has another huge year in 2014, they could sign him to a longer, fatter contract – with a couple of “good conduct” clauses included.

The thing about Hardy is that if the Panthers don’t re-sign him, then they immediately have to start looking for someone just like him. And for a team so close to the top, that would be a step in the wrong direction.

Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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