Ron Rivera's Case for Becoming the Best Head Coach in Carolina Panthers History

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Ron Rivera's Case for Becoming the Best Head Coach in Carolina Panthers History
Mike McCarn/Associated Press

There is much for Ron Rivera to be excited about moving into the 2014 season.  The Carolina Panthers head coach will enter the season as the league's reigning AP Coach of the Year and, unlike some of his contemporaries, will not be on the hot seat at the start of the year.  

The new season will be a whole new experience for Rivera as his team will be projected as a contender.

Granted, he has a tall order ahead of him. He was given an extension, and should he finish it out, he will be behind John Fox as the team's longest-tenured head coach. Fox coached in Carolina for nine seasons before being let go after 2010.

Upon completion of the 2014 season, Rivera will tie Dom Capers for the second-longest tenure in Carolina history. Capers coached four seasons with the Panthers and established early success for the franchise as they won seven games in their inaugural season (an NFL record) and reached the NFC title game the following season, the quickest for an expansion team.

Currently, Fox has the title of best coach in team history. However, Rivera is primed to make a run at him.

 

First Three Years Ron Rivera (2011-13) John Fox (2002-04)
Record 25-23 25-23
Postseason 0-1 3-1*
Ave. Off. Rank 14th 20th
Ave. Def. Rank 14th 10th

On the surface, both men are very similar. They both share the same record after three seasons in Carolina, and each has reached the postseason once during that span. The offensive and defensive rankings are considerably close, but Rivera's Panthers have become better defensively while Fox's teams regressed in that category.

To be fair, the exact opposite has happened with the offense, but Rivera's teams have scored at least 355 points in each of his first three seasons. By comparison, Fox's teams only scored 355 points once in his first three years at the helm (2004).

Digging deeper, the numbers suggest that Rivera could very well end his career on a positive note and leave as the team's all-time leader in wins. Fox holds the record at 73.

 

Nick Laham/Getty Images

Offense

The biggest difference between the two eras starts at quarterback. Fox had Jake Delhomme, whom the Panthers signed via free agency in 2003. He was a backup in New Orleans and seemed destined for the role when he signed with Carolina during the offseason. However, he came off the bench and engineered a comeback for the ages against Jacksonville, and the rest, they say, is history.

Delhomme never relinquished his grip on the starting job except when he was sidelined by injury. He would lead the Panthers to three division titles and a Super Bowl berth in 2003. However, he never threw for more than 3,886 yards, and his career high in touchdown passes stands at 29.

On the other hand, Rivera has Cam Newton.

Bob Leverone/Associated Press

The former Heisman trophy winner was Carolina's first choice in the 2011 draft (first overall) and exploded onto the professional scene by throwing for 4,051 yards in his rookie year. Newton's passing yards have decreased the past two seasons, but he has still managed to throw for over 3,300 yards. It should be noted that he has made small improvements since his rookie year and only looks to get better.

He helped lead the team to its first playoff berth since 2008 and, at 24 years of age, should be able to consistently keep the Panthers in contention every year.

Rivera and Fox have each shared a few notable players who have been with the team for a while. Steve Smith, Jordan Gross, Ryan Kalil, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have all played for both coaches.

If Rivera remains around for a long time, those men will be replaced with his guys. However, Rivera's early success on offense can be attributed to the John Fox era.

That assessment doesn't exactly lend itself to the defensive side of the ball.

 

Defense

Thomas Davis, Charles Johnson, Charles Godfrey and Captain Munnerlyn were the only players to see significant playing time and establish themselves as key players under both men.

Bob Leverone/Associated Press

However, during the Rivera era, the Carolina defense has begun to blossom into one of the most effective and suffocating defenses in the league. Much of that has to do with the selection of middle linebacker Luke Kuechly in 2012 and the emergence of Greg Hardy as a pass-rusher.

While Hardy may not last much longer in Carolina, the Panthers still have a very solid group of defensive players who can create turnovers and cause all kinds of havoc.

Fox fielded a top-five defense in 2002 but regressed over the next couple of seasons. Rivera has seen his defense not only improve but rank just behind the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. It should be noted that in the two games these two teams played against each other in the Rivera era, each was a low-scoring affair which was determined by less than a touchdown.

 

Close Losses

The first two seasons of the Ron Rivera era can be described as missed opportunities. Over the course of Rivera's first 32 games, Carolina dropped 13 contests by a score of eight points or less. Taking into consideration the 19 losses between those two years, the Panthers had the early makings of being a great football team from the very start of 2011.

However, it was Rivera's conservative play-calling that was responsible for a few of those losses, and after dropping a close one to Buffalo in Week 2 of the 2013 season, he decided a change was needed. By taking a more aggressive approach to his offensive strategy and going for it on fourth down, Rivera evolved into Riverboat Ron, and as a result, the Panthers would go on an 11-1 run after starting the season at 1-3.

Had Rivera embraced a similar approach during his first two seasons, it is safe to say the Panthers may have found themselves in playoff contention.

 

Awards and Recognition

Evan Agostini/Associated Press

One aspect Ron Rivera has over his predecessor is the amount of accolades his team has earned over the past three years. Since 2011, Carolina has represented the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year (Newton-2011), the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year (Kuechly-2012), AP Defensive Player of the Year (Kuechly-2013) and AP Coach of the Year (Rivera-2013).

During the Fox years, the Panthers only claimed AP Defensive Rookie of the Year. Julius Peppers took home the award after the 2002 season.

The awards are nothing to scoff at either. According to Panthers.com senior writer Bryan Strickland, no team during the existence of the Carolina Panthers has won four of those five major awards in a three-year span. The closest teams to achieve this mark are the St. Louis Rams (1999-2001) and Baltimore Ravens (2003-2004).

Rivera has already separated himself from Fox by claiming AP Coach of the Year and is only the second Carolina head coach to win the award (Dom Capers-1996).

 

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Looking Ahead

Ron Rivera certainly has his work cut out for him as he readies his team for the 2014 season. The NFC South should remain competitive with New Orleans continuing to be a force and the recovery of Atlanta and Tampa Bay.

One item of business that will help separate Rivera from any other coach in Carolina history will be his ability to produce consecutive winning seasons. This has never been done in the 19 years the Panthers have fielded a team.

The steady improvement of the team's record in his first three years bodes well for Rivera in accomplishing this feat. Even if Carolina finishes the season with nine wins or 11, the Panthers will still achieve back-to-back winning seasons. Of course, the ultimate goal will be to reach the Super Bowl, and anything short of a playoff berth may be viewed as a failurewinning season or not.

With the assistance of general manager Dave Gettleman, Rivera should be able to construct a competitive team with a fair balance of rookies and veterans who will step up and take the franchise to new heights.

If Rivera can turn Carolina into a perennial contender, he will not only surpass John Fox as the team's most successful coach, but he could find himself among some of the league's best coaches of this generation.

He has won the locker room, and his players love having him around.  They believe in each other.  It is this mutual belief in one another that will help move the team to uncharted territory.

 

*Carolina played four postseason games in 2003; the NFC Wild Card Round, the NFC Divisional Round, NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl.

All stats and historical information are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.

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