The Carolina Panthers begin their organized team activities (OTAs) today, and for Ron Rivera it could be the beginning of his final season as Panthers head coach. The former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator has struggled to guide the Panthers past mediocrity posting a disappointing 13-19 record. If the Panthers fail to make the playoffs, Rivera could be shown the door.
Rivera’s future will be tied to the fortunes of his third year quarterback Cam Newton. Newton stumbled out of the gate last year, but he showed promise during the second half of the season. Newton must thrive if Rivera has any hopes of being retained as head coach.
Rivera’s situation is complicated by his new boss, general manager David Gettleman. Gettleman replaced longtime Panthers GM Marty Hurney who was fired after Carolina’s 1-5 start last year. New GMs typically prefer to bring their own people into the organization, leaving Rivera very little room for error.
Playing in the NFC South wont make Rivera’s task any easier. Sean Payton will reunite with Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have bolstered their defense adding Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson. The Atlanta Falcons return a team that was a pass interference call away from a trip to the Super Bowl.
Linebacker Luke Keuchly and QB Cam Newton may be building blocks on their respective sides of the ball, but the Panthers need help in many areas. Linebacker John Beason missed most of last season with a knee injury and recently underwent surgery on his shoulder.
On the offensive side of the ball, three starters are returning from offseason surgeries: left tackle Jordan Gross (ankle), center Ryan Kalil (foot) and running back Jonathan Stewart (ankle).
On the defense, the Panthers are inexperienced in the secondary after cutting veteran corner Chris Gamble. Despite their weakness at the position, the Panthers decided not to use any draft picks on the secondary. Instead they will rely on undrafted rookies, Robert Lester and Melvin White, as well as free agents Mike Mitchell, Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore. It’s a motley crew that no doubt has Matt Ryan and Drew Brees salivating.
The Panthers are at best the third most talented team in the NFC South. This won’t stop Rivera from being fired because the public perception is that this is a team on the rise. The Panthers are a strange combination of talented young players and aging veterans, and it will be up to Rivera to find the right mix or he will find himself in the unemployment line.