CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers did the rare and classy move Wednesday morning by allowing their fired head coach to speak to the media. He had earned that right as both the franchise’s winningest coach and as one of the best men in this profession.
Ron Rivera took that opportunity to make his pitch to his next employer.
Of course, it was more than that for Rivera. He thanked his players and coworkers and media. He extended gratitude to the Carolinas for showing southern hospitality in times like when his house caught fire in 2014. He recalled his deepest regret of not delivering on his promise to bring a Super Bowl to Charlotte.
But just as Panthers owner David Tepper put up a help-wanted ad Tuesday night, Rivera on Wednesday morning used his platform to list his resume for all potential employers.
“I think I’ve got the right kind of experience,” Rivera said when I asked him what his pitch will be for his next job opportunity. “Having gone through the things I’ve gone through, been through the things we’ve been through, been where we’ve been it gives me experience. It doesn’t mean I’ll be better than anybody else but it does give me perspective.
“I’ve had perspective. I was fortunate enough to play in this league, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to be a better coach than anybody. It means I’ll be a coach that has perspective. Well, I’m a coach that has perspective now. I’ve been through it.
“At the end of the day it’s production based and if you don’t produce then it’s time to move on. I’ll be honest, I’m kind of excited. I really am. I’m really looking forward to a lot of opportunities.”
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At 57 years young, Rivera is a two-time AP NFL Coach of the Year with four playoff appearances in nine seasons and more than 30 years of NFL experience. He began his press conference Wednesday by pointing out how he oversaw a culture change surrounding how this team is perceived locally and nationally when he took over a 2-14 squad and became the first NFC South team to win consecutive division crowns (before becoming the first to win it three straight years in 2015).
Though it’s true the Panthers have never had consecutive winning seasons since their 1995 birth, Rivera was miffed at the perceived lack of context with that statement. Sure the 2014 Panthers went 7-8-1— thus denying the franchise of three consecutive winning seasons — but they won the division and won a home playoff game that year. That counts for winning, Rivera said.
Speaking of that 2014 team, Rivera pointed to that as his best coaching job. If NFL owners are listening, he wanted them to know that he kept a 3-8-1 team together and the final four games to get into the playoffs. That season included his franchise-tagged defensive end being arrested on domestic violence charges, his brother going in and out of the hospital in a battle with pancreatic cancer, his star quarterback flipping his truck and breaking bones in his back and his own home catching fire.
As for the man his next employer will get, try this: Rivera regularly had his wife, Stephanie, around the team. His daughter, Courtney, worked in the team’s digital department for years. He said he’d heard criticisms over the years of having his family around and wanted to address them.
“I told the players in there I hope you guys understand I was just trying to be the best example,” Rivera said. “I wanted Stephanie around because I wanted them to see how you’re supposed to be around your wife. I wanted my children around because I wanted the players to see how to be around their children. I mean, we set examples around us.”
It goes without saying at this point that Rivera is an honest and good man, but that won’t be enough to get him hired at any of the five to seven openings that will be created in the league by the new year. Because of his old-school roots and because Tepper has loudly proclaimed that his next coach will be invested in the modern data and analytics of football, it would seem Rivera is an old defensive dinosaur when it comes to today’s NFL.
“The numbers are there just to help you. At the end of the day you still have to make the decision,” Rivera said. “There are certain things that numbers can’t quantify. They can’t quantify injuries. They can’t quantify the weather. They can’t tell you whether the referee is going to make a good call or bad call. Can’t talk about momentum.
“The truth of the matter is figures lie and liars figure. You can find a stat to use it for whatever you want. At the end of the day it’s about the men on the field and who are calling the plays. It’s about the execution.”
He earned the moniker Riverboat Ron for going for it on fourth downs early in his tenure in Carolina (though he always preferred the nickname Analytical Ron.) Having one of the most physically dominant quarterbacks in NFL history in his prime sure did make going for it on fourth-and-short a lot easier in the early 2010s, though.
But I know that Rivera has been buying into advanced analytics for some time. For example, we spoke privately last season about going for the two-point conversion after scoring a touchdown down 14 to make it a six-point game in the fourth quarter, and he did that against the Packers in Week 10 this year.
In 2013 against the Dolphins, the Panthers faced a fourth-and-10 from their own 20 with 2:33 left in the game down 16-13. A conservative coach possibly would have punted there understanding the risk of a turnover on downs that deep in your own territory and asked his defense to get a stop with the ability to stop the clock twice with the final timeout and 2-minute warning. Instead, Rivera believed in his players and the flow of the game, and Cam Newton hit Steve Smith for a 19-yard pass on the way to the game-winning touchdown.
Later that season in Week 16, at home to the Saints in a game for the division crown down 13-10 with 2 minutes left at his own 36, Rivera punted on fourth-and-7 believing the defense would get a stop on the other side of the 2-minute warning. He gave the ball back to Drew Brees in a game for the division crown and got it right. The Panthers got the ball back with 55 seconds down 3 and scored the game-winning touchdown 27 seconds later.
The point I’m making here is, Rivera does make sense to me when he says he uses analytics as a tool. I feel he’s gotten unfairly bashed for saying what analytics don’t do when he’s right. And perhaps playing in this league and coaching in it for three decades does account for something that the numbers simply can’t — and that’s OK.
Washington is obviously looking for a new head coach. Atlanta, Jacksonville and Dallas would seemingly be in the market as well, and you can count on another team or two joining them. Might teams reverse course after two years of trying to chase the next Sean McVay, which appears to be Tepper’s want?
Of the past 15 hires over the last two seasons, just four coaches have a winning record with their clubs. Retreads are hard to sell to fanbases, and it’s easier to find their faults based off their established records than little-known coordinators.
Ron Rivera is open for business, and he has binders with color-coded tabs to show the next search firm just like he did in 2011 with the Panthers. So he’ll have four weeks to get those materials together and also enjoy a first December off since the mid-90s, perhaps popping over to Lake Tahoe to decompress for a bit.
Any preferences on what his next landing spot has to offer?
“A challenge,” he said.