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Panthers’ Rivera had a nice ride in 2013 but journey isn’t over

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.
PANTHERS_PRESS_CONFERENCE_02
Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, left, and general manager Dave Gettleman at a news conference in January. Among the topics discussed at the news conference: what's next for the Panthers, free agency, the draft and the offseason.

Ron Rivera figured he had a shot at Associated Press’ NFL Coach of the Year when he walked into Radio City Music Hall the night before the Super Bowl and didn’t see the other candidates.

Also, a woman who works for the league asked if he had written a speech. He hadn’t. So when the Panthers’ coach won the award, Rivera spontaneously began to thank the people who helped him.

Before he finished, he was given the sign no award winner wants to see – thanks for playing but wrap it up.

“I wanted to thank Marty Hurney for the opportunity, Jerry Richardson for his support and Dave Gettleman for being a man of his word,” Rivera says Wednesday afternoon.

Hurney, Carolina’s former general manager, hired Rivera. Richardson, who owns the team, stuck with Rivera through two losing seasons and a 2-4 start in 2013.

Gettleman replaced Hurney as general manager this season. He and Rivera had no relationship. In fact, when Richardson decided to retain Rivera, he had yet to hire a general manager.

Speculation was that Rivera was Hurney’s guy and not Gettleman’s.

“I don’t care whose guy you are,” Rivera says Gettleman told him. “We’re here to win.”

About a potential contract extension – Rivera’s four-year contract would expire after the 2014 season – Rivera says Gettleman’s advice was succinct: “Make us come to you.”

On Jan. 28, the Panthers did.

The 28th was the Tuesday after the Pro Bowl. Rivera had coached the winning team in the rare Pro Bowl that was more interesting than the Super Bowl and returned to Charlotte that morning. Rivera landed at 5:45 a.m. and was in the office by 6:45.

Gettleman joined him. They talked about the roster, the draft and free agents.

Three days earlier, Gettleman told Rivera to call Frank. Frank is Frank Bauer, Rivera’s agent. So he did. The deal was clean and neat and Rivera signed a three-year extension that day.

Rivera says being named coach of the year “validates us.”

Us, he says, are the players who the past four seasons have gone 2-14, 6-10, 7-9 and 12-5.

“We went to stay relevant,” says Rivera. “We want to be in everybody’s conversation.”

The Panthers have often been in the conversation. The conversation was about teams that didn’t make the playoffs.

This season they won the NFC South. After receiving a first-round bye, Carolina lost at home 23-10 to San Francisco.

“Believe me, I was really disappointed,” says Rivera. “I can’t tell you how much it hurt.”

He talks about the “chippiness” and says the Panthers allowed the 49ers “to get us out of our game and we fell into it.”

The 49ers also were involved in skirmishes, but they quietly stepped away. The Panthers were loud and obvious, and they were caught.

“We lost our composure,” says Rivera. “I should have said, ‘Sit down, shut up and do your job.’ But I got caught up in it, too, offering some choice words to the referees.”

I ask Rivera about Greg Hardy, the free-agent defensive end. Rivera praises Hardy but offers no details. I ask about extending Cam Newton’s contract. Rivera offers no details.

I tell him that free agent cornerback Captain Munnerlyn has to be retained. Munnerlyn is fast. Munnerlyn is feisty. And the last time I ran into him, Munnerlyn bought me a drink.

“You look at the year he had and how young he is,” says Rivera.

Munnerlyn, who has played five seasons, is only 25.

Every contract decision, obviously, affects every other. A potential Hardy contract will affect Newton and a potential Newton contract will affect Munnerlyn. Gettleman and Rivera and the coordinator and position coaches will meet to assess potential draft picks and potential free agents.

These meetings will happen soon. A meeting between Rivera and Gettleman and Richardson happened Tuesday.

The theme was simple.

“The status quo doesn’t work,” says Rivera.

Meaning: 2013 was nice. But it wasn’t enough.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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