Scott Fowler

Will changes to Ron Rivera’s Panthers coaching staff make any difference at all?

Ron Rivera’s conversations with owner David Tepper

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera responds to a question about his conversations with team owner David Tepper and general manager Marty Hurney on Monday. Rivera earlier had released coaches Brady Hoke and Jeff Imamura of their duties.
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Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera responds to a question about his conversations with team owner David Tepper and general manager Marty Hurney on Monday. Rivera earlier had released coaches Brady Hoke and Jeff Imamura of their duties.

Two Carolina assistant coaches got fired Monday, less than 24 hours after the Panthers suffered their fourth consecutive loss.

Defensive line coach Brady Hoke and assistant secondary/cornerbacks coach Jeff Imamura were “relieved of their duties” — a gentle way to put a move that is both brutal and has a whiff of desperation about it.

Firing somebody in midseason, as coach Ron Rivera has done here, is the sort of move you make when you’re worried you might be next — or else when your boss forces you to do it, which Rivera said owner David Tepper did not do.

In his eighth season as Panthers coach, Rivera obviously felt like he had to do something fairly radical after the 24-17 loss to Tampa Bay that dropped Carolina to 6-6. He also announced he has taken over the defensive play-calling from defensive coordinator Eric Washington, although Washington retains the “defensive coordinator” title.

That’s an emasculating move no matter how you slice it. It’s far better than being fired, of course. But for a coordinator with head-coaching aspirations, this sort of thing is like someone else taking over the wheel in a car you thought you owned.

“You’ve all got to remember your first time doing something; you weren’t perfect,” Rivera told the media in his Monday press conference. “Somebody had to help you, and that’s really what I’m here for — to help him (Washington) as we go forward as a football team.”

A Whac-a-Mole team

Rivera is first and foremost a defensive coach — a former NFL linebacker and longtime defensive coordinator. He has instilled his defensive philosophy successfully enough that his past two defensive coordinators with the Panthers — Sean McDermott and Steve Wilks — parlayed fine work by their Carolina charges into NFL head-coaching jobs.

But Washington, previously the team’s defensive line coach and now its first-year coordinator, has had different results. Not all of it is his fault — the Panthers defense has also looked old and overmatched, and that’s a personnel issue — but some of it is. For instance, I thought Washington didn’t blitz enough for much of the season.

Rivera was already more hands-on Sunday with the Carolina defense, and things were somewhat better. The defense was poor on Tampa Bay’s first possession, allowing a methodical touchdown drive. But the Panthers also had four sacks and forced four fourth-quarter punts by Tampa.

The question was raised during Panthers head coach Ron Rivera's Monday press conference if it had been decided prior to Sunday's loss to Tampa Bay that he would be more involved in the defensive play calling.

Because of those four forced punts, the Panthers offense got the ball four times in the last 13 minutes, down by seven points with a legitimate chance to score a tying touchdown. And got zero points.

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Carolina head coach Ron Rivera, right, makes a point to officials during the loss to Seattle. The Panthers have now lost four games in a row, and Rivera made several changes to his defensive coaching staff Monday. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The blame for Sunday’s loss rested more on the offense and quarterback Cam Newton’s four interceptions. To understand how badly Newton played, Tampa Bay had only three interceptions total in its first 11 games this year.

But that’s the way it works in football or in life when you’re really struggling, right? The problems are of the Whac-a-Mole variety; bop one on the head and another one just pops up elsewhere.

No wins since Nov. 4

As for the coaches who were fired: Brady Hoke you may be familiar with, mainly because of his stint as Michigan’s head coach. I will confess I had to look up how to spell Imamura’s last name — not that he wasn’t important, but he wasn’t very high up the totem pole.

Rivera could have kept both men around, of course. But doing nothing at all during a crisis is also a choice, and the Panthers’ status quo hasn’t been working for a month. The Panthers’ season so far has been like a promising movie that fizzles out halfway through, making you leave the theater wondering why you paid good money for that.

The Panthers were 6-2 on Nov. 4 when they beat Tampa Bay, scoring touchdowns on five consecutive possessions at one point and looking very much like one of the best teams in the NFL.

Now, after a loss to that same Tampa Bay team, the Panthers are 6-6. By the time they play again, at Cleveland on Sunday, they won’t have won a football game for 34 days.

What the Panthers need is far more than a reshuffling of the assistant coaches’ organizational chart. They need Newton not to throw four picks, and the team not to get penalized for a season-high 104 yards, and to actually take the ball away on defense more than once every four weeks.

The coaching changes might provide a spark. I suppose they are worth a try.

But if the Panthers players perform no better than they did at Tampa, what happened Monday will be analogous to someone choosing a different in-flight meal on the Hindenburg.

No matter what, the crash is still coming.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for the Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also is the host of the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth.”
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