The NFL’s annual games in London have been good for growing the sport, bad for the livelihood of its head coaches.
Miami fired Joe Philbin on Monday, a day after the Dolphins’ lackluster loss to the New York Jets at Wembley Stadium and a little more than a year after Oakland canned coach Dennis Allen after a loss to Miami in London.
Such is the reality for NFL coaches. One day you’re eating fish and chips across the pond, and the next you’re unemployed in south Florida.
Ron Rivera can relate.
It wasn’t that long ago the Panthers’ fifth-year coach was among those considered to be on the hot seat.
The Panthers started poorly in each of Rivera’s first three seasons, and were off to a 1-2 start in 2013 when they flew to Arizona for a game against the Cardinals following a bye week. The morning of the game, NFL Network reported the Panthers had begun background checks on head-coaching candidates, which Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has denied.
A dispiriting 22-6 loss to Arizona did nothing to quell the speculation about Rivera’s future.
But Rivera wasn’t worried.
In a meeting with Jerry Richardson, the Panthers owner and founder assured Rivera he would not fire him during a season, which Rivera first mentioned to reporters Monday.
“He’s always told me he would make no decisions until after. So I’ve always had that (assurance),” Rivera said during his weekly news conference. “And I’ve never used that. He told me if I ever had to I could tell that to you guys and I never did.
“And I appreciated that because it gave me comfort and solace going forward that I could do my job, work as hard as I could, do the best I can and at the end of the day he’ll evaluate me.”
Since the loss in Arizona on Oct. 6, 2013, the Panthers have gone 22-9-1, become the first team to win the NFC South two years in a row and captured the first back-to-back playoff berths in franchise history.
Carolina’s .703 winning percentage over that span is tied with Green Bay for fifth-best in the league.
Rivera, who has the Panthers off to a 4-0 start this season, is thankful Richardson stayed the course.
“All I can say is I’m very fortunate. I have an owner who has a lot of patience. I have a general manager who works with me very well,” Rivera said. “We’ve put players in the position just hoping to get to that point. We were fortunate enough to get to that point.”
Rivera (36-31-1) quietly surpassed Dom Capers as the Panthers’ second-winningest coach last season. While Rivera has a long way to go catch John Fox (73-71), Rivera’s winning percentage (.537) is higher than Fox’s (.507) as Carolina’s coach.
“It’s all coming together and I think it’s all coming together at a good time,” Rivera said. “Now we’ve just got to maintain it.”
The Panthers have reversed their trend of starting slowly under Rivera the past two seasons. They opened 3-2 last season before a mid-season swoon threatened to derail their playoff hopes.
This year the Panthers are one of six remaining undefeated teams. And while critics have taken to calling the Panthers the worst 4-0 team in the league, based on the teams they’ve beaten, Rivera was having none of it.
“We were, considered, the worst team in the playoffs last year. We won a playoff game and scared Seattle a little bit. So I feel pretty good about things,” Rivera said. “I’m not going to apologize for everybody else’s record.”
Rivera knows the schedule is about to get considerably harder. After this week’s bye, the Panthers face Seattle and Green Bay, last year’s NFC championship game participants.
But he thinks these Panthers have the chance to be his best team.
The team just sank $165 million into its two cornerstone players – quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who is expected to be back for a trip to Seattle in Week 6 after missing three games while in the concussion protocol.
Newton is becoming a more complete quarterback and finding ways to move the ball despite the loss of No. 1 wideout Kelvin Benjamin to a season-ending knee injury in training camp.
Rivera, signed through the 2017 season after receiving a three-year extension after being named Coach of the Year for 2013, is no longer on the hot seat. But job security for NFL coaches can change overnight, or in Philbin’s case, over the course of a trans-Atlantic flight.
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen says there’s an easy way to make sure Rivera’s job is safe.
“We always said the best thing we could do in those times to take the pressure off the organization ... is just go out and win,” Olsen said. “It’s a very simple formula in this league. You win, you have success, everything’s better.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera points to a Week 5 loss at Arizona in 2013 as the turning point in his head-coaching tenure. A look at the NFL teams with the best regular-season winning percentages since Week 6 in 2013:
*Does not include Monday night’s game