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Analysis: Tepper's Firing Of Panthers Coach Rivera With 4 Games Left 'Unusual'


After nearly nine seasons, 76 wins and a Super Bowl appearance, the Ron Rivera era is over for the Carolina Panthers. Owner David Tepper fired Rivera, the head coach, on Tuesday, saying he "just thought it was time given the way things have gone the last two seasons."

Rivera was the most successful coach in Panthers history, and Rivera was well-liked in Charlotte.

Charlotte Observer sports columnist Scott Fowler joins WFAE "Morning Edition" host Lisa Worf to discuss Rivera's firing.

Worf: So did the timing of this firing come as a surprise? I mean, why not wait until after the season?

Fowler: Yes, it did. I think everyone in that building, including Ron Rivera, was surprised because this normally doesn't happen unless your team had maybe gone 1-11 or something. And the Panthers are 5-7. I don't think it's unexpected at all that he was fired. The team has been relatively mediocre or worse ever since David Tepper took over, but firing him with four games left was unusual.

Tepper explained that yesterday as saying he had made the decision already, hoped to finish out the year with Ron Rivera. However, he knew some other teams were already conducting sort of unofficial coaching searches. Teams that will be looking for other coaches and that this would put the Panthers at a competitive disadvantage if he didn't go ahead and do this right now and he wanted to get in the game, I guess, on a coaching search. So the timing was unusual, to say the least.

Worf: Ultimately, what was Rivera's downfall then?

Fowler: Losing. That's unfortunately, what normally happens. You know, he was the most successful coach the Panthers have ever had. You couldn't find a nicer guy, really, in that chair in the NFL. I mean, very involved in the community in Charlotte, as folks know. He and his wife, Stephanie, did all sorts of good things here and everyone liked it, including the players.

So it wasn't any sort of player revolt, which occasionally you see with a real hard-edged coach or something. Rivera was not like that. However, under Tepper, they have been 12-16. And Tepper met with a number of us in the media two weeks ago and said, "I just can't accept long-term mediocrity." And he was talking about a lot of things. But it certainly seemed like a shot across the bow at that time.

So after that, I sort of thought, "Well, this is probably the beginning of the end." However, I thought the end would not come for four more weeks.

Worf: What was Rivera's greatest contribution to the franchise, then? And what's he going to be most remembered for?

Fowler: Well, I think he'll be most remembered for two things: One, he was successful. Not in a Bill Belichick sort of way. But as you mentioned, and they made the Super Bowl, they had the best season ever in their history. They won three straight NFC South championships from 2013 to 2015. So, successful? Yes, that will be probably what he'll like to be remembered by, one.

And secondly, I think what I mentioned too, that he's just a nice guy. And anyone who's been around Rivera knows that. And he, you know, he interviewed, Lisa, eight different times for NFL head coaching jobs and never got them. And this was No. 9 for him. And he did get it. And then he lasted almost nine years -- which is way longer than most NFL head coaches last. So he's got a very strong legacy here in the Carolinas.

Worf: Now, both Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney were with the Panthers before Tepper took control of the team. And Tepper said he intends to make organizational changes. Do you get the sense that Hurney could soon be gone as well?

Fowler: That was left up in the air yesterday, but the way that it was stated, it did not seem to me like Hurney would be leaving the organization, because if he were, you most likely would do it yesterday and make kind of a clean break from the old regime. Now, Tepper does plan to bring in some help for Hurney, an assistant general manager, it sounded like. But at this point, I would lay odds on Marty Hurney being back in 2020.

Worf: Has Tepper indicated what he's looking for in a head coach? Such as, whether he prefers an offensive- or a defensive-minded coach?

Fowler: A little bit. He danced around this a little bit yesterday in his media appearance, but it certainly sounded like he wanted someone offensive-oriented. That is the way the NFL has gone. The rules lean toward offense. You've got to score points. You need, really to score probably 28 to 30 points almost regularly in the NFL these days to win.

So, the Panthers have a lot of problems on both sides of the ball. But normally NFL teams do the opposite, when they're firing a coach, of what they had. So Rivera was an old-school, defensive coach. What I would guess they'll hire is a new-school, offensive coach.

Worf: What are the team's challenges going to be heading into the next season?

Fowler: The No. 1 question, Lisa, is with quarterback Cam Newton. They have one year remaining on a contract that they will need to pay him $19 million to have him play next year. And that -- I know that sounds amazingly exorbitant -- that is about a mid-price for an NFL quarterback. Actually, not a terrible price -- if Cam Newton is healthy. That's the big question. So the next coach will have to help make that determination once Cam Newton is seen by the doctors.

This decision will not need to be made until probably late February, at the earliest. But at some point, they'll have to figure out: Will Cam Newton be our quarterback in 2020 and beyond?

Worf: That's The Charlotte Observer's Scott Fowler. Scott, thanks.

Fowler: Thank you so much.

Worf: And you can read Scott's column on Rivera's firing at CharlotteObserver.com.

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.