When Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was brought in prior to the start of the 2011 season, he was expected to take a hard luck franchise and turn them into a contender. From the start, it seemed he had all the necessary pieces; a highly regarded coaching staff, a can't miss No. 1 draft pick and key veterans to help mold and mentor the younger players into contributing starters or situational players. He even improved the team's record by four games in his first year and with a starting rookie quarterback.
Halfway through his second season, he is a far cry from achieving the goals he was expected to meet when hired. It hasn't helped him any that the Panthers were considered to be playoff contenders and perhaps a dark horse candidate to win the NFC South.
If Rivera wants to keep his job, he will most likely need to close the season out on a winning note. A 5-4 record over the season's last nine games will match last year's 6-10 finish and that may not even be good enough to keep his job.
It is really hard to see Rivera remaining as the Panthers head coach after two sub par seasons, especially with the expectations coming into the second year.
While some will point the finger at his coaching staff, like the early season struggles of Sean McDermott's defense or the inability of Rob Chudzinski to adapt to opponents' defensive strategy, ultimately the blame still falls on the man in charge. It is one thing to criticize a coordinator and blame them after one loss but for them to shoulder the blame week in and week out is ridiculous. They will keep calling the same plays as long as the head coach supports them.
It is not out of the question to say that Rivera's time in Carolina may be short. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson wants to win, and wants to win now. He has already shown the team what the consequences are for failure with the firing of Marty Hurney as general manager.
Hope may be around the corner.
Carolina has shown some improvement over the last couple of weeks. Despite key injuries to to Jon Beason and Chris Gamble on defense, the Panthers defense has played well in the last two games in which they missed. Rookie Luke Kuechly has proven he can play middle linebacker with success and the combined efforts of Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Norman have kept the passing game in check.
Last week, the Panthers ditched the read option and utilized a more pro style offense which seemed to work well for them. There is still a lot of work to be done in harnessing Cam Newton's talent and emotions as well as getting all aspects of the offense firing on all cylinders. Carolina played a tough Chicago team very well this past Sunday but came up short in the end.
If anything, the failure to close out games will be Rivera's undoing. While it was great to see the Panthers get some points on the board, it would have been nice to see a few of those field goals last Sunday turned into touchdowns. It didn't help that the Carolina special teams constantly used squib kicks on kickoffs to avoid putting the ball in Devin Hester's hands.
That shows how much a coach feels about his special teams unit. Hester is a very talented returner but he has not been the same since the league changed the kickoff rule. It is probably this same reason that led Rivera to opt for the Hail Mary to close out the first half instead of allowing Justin Medlock the chance at kicking a 51 yard field goal. Had Carolina attempted the field goal, Hester would have been sitting there near the goal post in case the kick was short.
For a coach who is 1-6 and failing to meet expectations, the time for playing it safe is over. If Rivera is to keep his job, he will need to take chances. He will need to make the right calls that will allow his team to win games. He will need to show some fire and ignite his team to rise up and play hard. A complete change in fortune will need to take place if Rivera is to be a part of Carolina's plans moving forward. Otherwise, Richardson can go ahead and start preparing his list of replacement coaches.
If he hasn't started it already.