Ron Rivera just the first domino to fall in Panthers’ rebuild

By Vincent Frank
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers announced the firing of head coach Ron Rivera after almost nine seasons and a Super Bowl appearance with the team. The announcement came as a shock to many, and leaves the future of the organization up in the air.

Overview: Rivera posted a 76-61-1 record as the Panthers’ head coach. It’s the best mark for a head coach in franchise history. It also included four trips to the playoffs, two NFL Coach of the Year honors and a Super Bowl appearance.

This came together rather quickly after Carolina fell to the Washington Redskins on Sunday. The team is now 5-7 on the season and pretty much out of the playoff race.

Despite this, it seems that Carolina’s brass used Rivera as an in-season scapegoat. Here’s a look at that with a further explanation of why he won’t be the last fall guy for this organization.

Odds were stacked against Rivera: Cam Newton’s off-season shoulder surgery coupled with his in-season Lisfranc injury put the head coach behind the proverbial eight-ball.

  • Panthers general manager Marty Hurney decided to roll with two inexperienced backups behind a quarterback in Newton who was coming off a serious shoulder injury.
  • This forced Rivera to rely on former undrafted free agent Kyle Allen. Despite early success, it became rather apparent during a Week 8 blowout loss to the 49ers that he was limited against good teams.
  • The other option here was rookie mid-round pick Will Grier, who is nowhere near ready to see an NFL field.
  • Forcing Rivera to go into the season with this quarterback room set him up for failure.

Was always going to be a year of transition: No one in their right mind believed that Carolina was going to contend in the NFC South, limiting its chances to make the playoffs.

  • Lost in the Panthers’ early success was the fact that this team didn’t have the talent to go up with the big boys in the NFC.
  • Five of Carolina’s seven losses this season have come by one score. If we’re talking about a legit contender, that’s on the coach. These Panthers don’t have to the talent to be considered on the echelon of the Saints, 49ers, Packers, Vikings and Seahawks.
  • That’s the biggest issue with the mid-season firing of Rivera. He played some better teams (Saints, Rams and Packers) close while being blown out by the 49ers.

Just the first domino: If the Panthers were so quick to move on from Rivera, we have to wonder if a divorce with Cam Newton is imminent.

  • The writing has been on the wall for Newton in Carolina for some time. Once Kyle Allen took after as the starter and had success, odds were stacked against Newton returning.
  • The Rivera firing adds yet another layer to this. Carolina is likely going to rebuild with a core group of Christian McCaffrey, Brian Burns and the ever-lasting Luke Kuechly.
  • This leaves Newton on the outs. Selecting Grier in the third round of April’s draft added to this more. If Carolina had legit expectations of contention in 2019, it would have gone with a more pro-ready option.

Adding to that thought: It has not been a well-kept secret that Newton has fallen out of favor in Carolina. He won’t be part of a larger-scale rebuild.

  • There’s legitimately no reason to believe new owner David Tepper is using a short-term vision for his squad. He’s thinking about 4-5 years down the road. Newton is not a part of the thought process.
  • Think of it this way. If you were hellbent on motivating Newton to be a long-term option, why fire the only head coach he’s ever known in the NFL?
  • Options here include an outright release or a trade (depending on Newton’s health). But he has likely played his final game as a member of the Panthers.

The end result

Immediately following the announcement of Rivera’s firing, reports surfaced that the Panthers were looking at adding Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert to the mix.

This is not a coincidence. While Hurney might have saved his job for now by throwing Rivera under the bus, the Panthers are not committed to him long-term. It’s an organization-wide change of philosophy under Tepper.

Objectively, this might not be a bad thing. Existing in the NFL with a false hope of contention is worse than rebuilding. Tepper is in this for the long haul.

In addition to Rivera, that long haul is unlikely to include Newton, Hurney and a number of veterans once the 2019 season comes to an end.