by Aaron Garcia
Let me start by saying that I like the Carolina Panthers’ decision to hire Ron Rivera as head coach. Since the team was born in the mid-90’s, the Panthers have always taken pride in winning with a solid defensive foundation, and I think Rivera is a good guy to uphold that tradition. After all, he’s been the architect of several game-changing defenses in recent history, including this year’s San Diego Chargers, who had the NFL’s best defense, and the 2006 Chicago Bears, who advanced all the way to the Super Bowl.
In reality, Rivera should’ve gotten a chance before this. He had opportunities, though it’s widely believed that many of his past job interviews took place simply to satisfy the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which was designed to give minority coaching candidates increased opportunities. But make no mistake about it: Rivera, who is of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, is, without a doubt, one of football’s best defensive minds.
But should we be excited about this hire? The simple answer is yes, but it’s more complicated than that.
Defense has never been a problem with the Panthers. Even this year, Carolina was among the toughest defensive units in the league, a trait blurred by spending too much time on the field because of an offense that perfected the Three-and-Out.
When hiring a new head coach, professional sports owners generally like to bring in a guy who provides whatever aspect their team is missing.
Obviously, that isn’t really the case with Rivera. But hopefully the hire says less about Panthers owner Jerry Richardson’s new-found frugality and more about his belief that a successful franchise is built around a solid defense. I’m glad the Panthers hired Rivera rather than grasp for an unproven offensive-guru-of-the-month type who sacrifices wins for passing yardage.
Would it be fun? Yes. Would it bring Charlotte a Super Bowl? Doubtful.
I think many Panther fans are lukewarm about the decision to hire Rivera because of the names that were initially bandied about as possible replacements for John Fox. But let’s face it: Richardson was never going to hire a high-profile head man such as Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden, no matter how much sense it made, because their respective asking prices were so high – and Richardson didn’t hide that fact. But the Panthers’ new man might not be too far from those guys; if Rivera had gotten a chance a few years ago, as he probably deserved, he might have been a more highly sought-after coaching prospect, if he were available at all.
It’s hard to hold that against Rivera.
But Richardson fumbled one important need in hiring a coach: Rivera doesn’t sell tickets. Not yet. That’s important when you decide to raise ticket prices in a year when you’ve put a higher premium on preparing for a labor dispute than winning football games (in the age of permanent Seat Licenses, no less). Hiring Gruden or Cowher would’ve caused instant hysteria at local ticket offices. Maybe we should thank Richardson for not causing our local community’s tailspin into mob rule.
Thanks, Jerry, though I think most fans would’ve gladly picked up a pitchfork, lit their torches and stood in line to buy tickets to watch either of those two men lead the Panthers.
But Rivera’s hiring could pay immediate dividends.
With Stanford quarterback – and potential franchise savior – Andrew Luck deciding to stay in school rather than become the league’s top draft choice, it looks as if Auburn defensive tackle Adam Fairley is a top candidate to get drafted by the Panthers in late April – although, as of Jan. 13, he hadn’t announced his decision to leave college before his senior year. Carolina has always been its best when it’s had a block-absorbing defensive tackle. Remember Kris Jenkins or Ma’ake Kemoeatu?
But the knock on Fairley is that he’s as dirty as he is effective at clogging running lanes, which the Panthers have been desperate for during the past two seasons.
I think the risk in drafting Fairley is minimal with a guy such as Rivera. A former player for the Chicago Bears in the 80’s, Rivera is certain to earn the respect of his players and should be able to focus Fairley’s mean streak into production. Same with Clemson defensive end Da’Quan Bowers, who many believe is a top talent with mid-round desire. It would be hard to take plays off when your coach played under former defensive mastermind (and hothead) Buddy Ryan, as Rivera did.
The other pieces (for the most part) are there. Defensive end Charles Johnson, linebacker Thomas Davis and cornerback Richard Marshall are all unrestricted free agents. But the fact that they weren’t cut before this season means that Richardson considers them vital parts of the Panthers’ core, or at least that’s how it’s been made to sound.
With Rivera, this defense could reemerge as one of the league’s best. If the unit improves enough, it could even help mask a lack of offense, much like the Rivera-coached Bears defense did in 2006.
In the end, assuming that the NFL doesn’t implode under the weight of the impending owner-backed lockout, Rivera will probably be here awhile, and I’m willing to bet that he’ll find success. Ten years from now, Rivera will probably be viewed as a solid head coach. And given the way Richardson has molded his team after fellow owner Art Rooney’s Pittsburgh Steelers, there’s a good chance he’ll still be a Panther. But I can’t help but feel that Richardson will have lucked into it.
And it’s hard to hold that against Rivera.