After their fourth consecutive loss, all but vanquishing their playoff aspirations, the Carolina Panthers fired two-time Coach of the Year Ron Rivera on Tuesday and promoted Perry Fewell from secondary coach to interim head coach.
Rivera, 57, guided the Panthers to four playoff appearances — including three NFC South titles — and a Super Bowl berth in eight-plus seasons, going 76-63-1 to become the winningest coach in franchise history.
“I believe this is the best decision for the long-term success of our team,” owner David Tepper said in a statement on the team's website. “I have a great deal of respect for Ron and the contributions he has made to this franchise and to this community. I wish him the best. I will immediately begin the search for the next head coach of the Carolina Panthers.”
But the Panthers have fallen on hard times of late with former MVP Cam Newton going on injured reserve early in the season with another shoulder ailment and former undrafted backup Kyle Allen’s struggles increasing along with his exposure to the rest of the league. Rivera’s Panthers also struggled greatly this season to stop the run following the departure of longtime defensive leader Thomas Davis and a season-ending injury to top DT Kawann Short.
Rivera, a Super Bowl champion with the 1985 Bears who parlayed successful coordinating stints in Chicago and San Diego into his Panthers post in 2011, is highly regarded in league circles and unlikely to be out of work long. One of the nicest, most genuine men in his profession, Rivera fielded some of the best defenses in the league, led by LBs Luke Kuechly and Davis, in 12-4 and 15-1 seasons in 2013 and 2015, respectively.
Yet Rivera also struggled to win consistently, never stacking consecutive above-.500 seasons, and was nearly relieved only two-plus years into his tenure prior to winning 12 of his final 15 games after an 0-2 start in 2013. It was then that Rivera earned his “Riverboat Ron” moniker, helping pave the way for the more aggressive mindsets that have become increasingly prevalent around the NFL.
Rivera’s days in Charlotte arguably have been numbered from the time David Tepper bought the team last offseason, and the attention will soon shift to the future of Newton, 30, who has suffered season-ending injuries in three of the past four seasons. Newton is entering a contract year in 2020, and his potential release could save Carolina $19 million against the cap next season.
Though Allen has predictably been unable to prove he can be the heir to the 2015 MVP whose nickname at the height of his prowess was Superman, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Tepper opts for an entirely clean break from the old regime with his quarterback’s body continuing to break down.
A clean break would also mean firing GM Marty Hurney, who hired Rivera in 2011 and began his second stint as Carolina’s lead decision maker in ‘17. That also would likely help the Panthers lure the best potential replacement for Rivera.
With arguably the NFL's best running back in Christian McCaffrey, two up-and-coming playmaking receivers in DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel and a few key pieces on defense, the Panthers should be an attractive destination. They have a fairly healthy cap situation, in addition to a progressive owner, and reside in a smaller market that can hardly be considered a pressure cooker. With NFC South rivals Drew Brees and Matt Ryan on the back nine of their illustrious careers and the Bucs still curiously committed to Jameis Winston, a quick turnaround in Carolina under the right stewardship is certainly feasible. Contrast that with the only other current opening, in dysfunctional Washington, and there's no contest which of the two availabilities thus far will be more highly coveted.
As for Rivera, it'd be a very surprising if he isn't at least coordinating a defense, if not leading a new team in 2020. His players seem to love and respect him, and his straight-shooting and sincere personality will be attractive qualities when he's ready to interview again.