The Carolina Panthers wrapped up another victory against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, and they did so in a dominant manner. The team, as a whole, has come around tremendously, and it seems like all the pieces of the puzzle are finally fitting into place. For many fans, it is disappointing that their turnaround is simply too little, too late.
Carolina's head coach Ron Rivera found himself on the hot seat after a 1-6 start, but after guiding his club to a 4-3 record over the past few weeks, he has found that seat becoming more lukewarm.
It is true that there is a lot of blame that could be directed at him and his staff for the poor season the Panthers experienced this year, but they are still in a position to finish the season with a slightly better record than last year. While a 7-9 record is nothing to get excited about, it would mean a huge boost for a team that just four weeks ago looked like a team primed to pick in the top five of next April's draft.
The Panthers have already made moves within the organization that saw the dismissals of general manager Marty Hurney and special teams coach Brian Murphy. Because of those moves, many expect Carolina to make a change at the head coaching position as well before next season. However, if that were to happen, it would be a huge mistake.
Here is why.
Rivera's Style is Taking Hold
Last season was Rivera's first season as the Panthers head coach and many did not expect too much from him. After all, he had a rookie quarterback and young players that he would need to mold into a legitimate contender. Needless to say, he had his work cut out for him.
He finished with relative success that saw Carolina field a 6-10 record and Cam Newton break multiple records on his way to winning the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award. In addition to that, the offense was regarded as one of the most potent in the conference and it finished the season ranked within the league's top five.
Since he finished so well in 2011, the expectations were high for this year, but Carolina face planted early on. However, it seems as though the team is responding to his style, and the results speak for themselves.
Rivera's team has been a patchwork roster of guys who weren't expected to see much playing time, let alone become a part of the active roster this season. However, due to injuries, a lot of these young players have been called upon and have answered that call very well.
Players like Jeff Byers, D.J. Campbell or Armond Smith may not be household names but they have been solid when on the field.
Imagine how much better Carolina would be if they had their usual starters healthy and playing.
Rivera Notched that Big Win
Carolina only has five wins, but their most impressive victory has to be the 30-20 beating of the division rival Atlanta Falcons two weeks ago. Not only was this a victory over a big-time rival, but it was one against a playoff-bound team and also the 2012 NFC South champion. This was their second meeting of the year, after the Panthers lost the first matchup in heartbreaking fashion in Week 4.
The ability of Rivera to regroup his team and come away with the win in the rematch showed the resolve of the Panthers. They brought the same style of aggressiveness and tenacity in the second meeting as they did in the first game, and they came away with the result they wanted. Plus, it marked the first win over the Falcons during the last decade, and it ended the Falcons winning streak in what is already a pretty lopsided rivalry.
If Rivera had beaten the Falcons in Atlanta, things may have turned out differently. Then again, had they won all of the close games that they've been in this year, this season would be a different story altogether.
He Kept the Games Close in Several Matchups
Rivera's nine losses should be taken with a grain of salt, even if that salt has to be rubbed into old wounds. Of his nine losses, seven of them were decided by a touchdown or less and Carolina was in a position to win all of them. Essentially, the Panthers could easily be 12-2 had they been able to seal the deal in close games.
Out of their nine losses, the Panthers dropped six of them to teams that were either playoff bound or in playoff contention. Only the New York Giants and Denver Broncos dominated them from start to finish this season. This little statistic aside, Carolina proved they can play with anyone, and their win over Atlanta confirmed that.
If he is given another season, Rivera's chances of getting the Panthers over the hump should be exponentially greater.
Everything is Coming Together
From the improved play at quarterback from Cam Newton to the physicality on defense from players like Luke Kuechly, Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, the Panthers looked primed to be an improved team entering Rivera's third season.
Newton has made some major strides in the past few weeks and has made better reads along with maintaining a strong pocket presence. Over the course of the last seven weeks, he has thrown only two interceptions compared to 13 touchdowns. What was projected to be a slump early in the year could very well turn out to be a duplication of last year's performance with some improvement.
The only real problem facing Rivera is his running back situation, but after a 93-yard rushing performance from DeAngelo Williams against San Diego that featured him finishing the day with 144 total yards, the running game could be returning to form.
What is not in question is the defense, which has shown dramatic improvement over the past few weeks. This unit has played well, and for a defensive-minded coach like Rivera, he has to like the product he sees on the field. Kuechly could be awarded the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, Thomas Davis could earn Comeback Player of the Year honors and his defensive ends could be the second coming of Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker.
Just a few weeks ago, the Panthers' defensive rankings were in the middle of the pack to the bottom of the order. However, they have improved to being in the middle of the pack—if not slightly higher—in some areas again. Imagine where this team would be if they had all been on the same page two or three weeks earlier?
Options, Options, Options
The Panthers will have a lot of options entering the offseason. For Rivera, he could be in a position to boast a ridiculously talented and effective linebacking unit, complemented by the talents of Johnson and Hardy, plus the young Frank Alexander who has already made quite the impression this season. If the current linebackers remain on the roster, Rivera will have the benefit that many of his counterparts around the league will be lacking—talented depth.
However, deals could be made that results in a trade for draft picks or an established veteran. With all of the names that have been thrown around throughout the course of this season, it's not a forgone conclusion to think that such a deal wouldn't be made. Either way, Rivera and the Carolina front office will have the upper hand in the days leading up to the draft.
It is hard to think that the Panthers will part with any of their veterans, and for that reason, one has to believe Carolina will be a deep and talented team entering the 2013 season. Locking up a couple of key free agents would definitely help Rivera, but he also has the personnel in place to win now.
Third Time's a Charm
The shortest tenure for a head coach in Carolina Panthers history was three years. That stint belonged to George Seifert, who was unable to do anything to return the Panthers to relevance and was replaced with John Fox. Undoubtedly, owner Jerry Richardson is seeing the progress made by Rivera in the stretch-run of 2012 and will have a big decision ahead of him.
It just seems unlikely that he will let Rivera go after two seasons, and even with a new general manager coming to Carolina, he should be allowed one more season to prove himself before getting the axe. With the way his team is coming along, Rivera should be able to start 2013 on a better note.
Granted, Rivera has made some questionable calls this past season but he could have done so much worse. Finishing with a 7-9 may not be seen as improvement, but it can be viewed as progress from where the team started the season to where they are today.
Not everyone is sold on Rivera's ability to coach in Carolina and many have opted for bigger and better names from both the professional and collegiate ranks who can lead the Panthers to the promised land. Rivera may not be a Cowher, Kelly or Fewell but he deserves at least one more chance to get it right before handing the reigns over to someone else.