An era of Panthers football is coming to a close. On Tuesday, the franchise fired head coach Ron Rivera, who has led the team since 2011 and guided it to a Super Bowl appearance after the 2015 season.
It wasn’t long ago that Rivera was a Coach of the Year candidate, but the Panthers will almost certainly miss the playoffs for the second season in a row. After losing Cam Newton two games into the season, backup Kyle Allen guided the team to a 5-3 record through the season’s first nine weeks and kept Carolina on track for a playoff berth. But the wheels came off in November and the Panthers lost four consecutive games, including a 29-21 defeat to listless Washington on Sunday. They’re currently 5-7, but they’re 27th in DVOA and will mostly remember this season for running back Christian McCaffrey’s fantasy prowess—but fantasy relevance doesn’t help coaches keep jobs.
Still, no matter how messy it got in Charlotte, no one expected Rivera to be fired after Week 13. He’s led the Panthers to a 76-63-1 record in his tenure and has taken the team to playoffs in four of his eight full seasons as head coach. Rivera’s background is on the defensive side, and his teams have been in the top 10 in yards allowed in five seasons. And, of course, he led the franchise to its second NFC championship in 2015 after a 15-1 regular-season record. Considering Newton’s shoulder injury forced an undrafted free-agent quarterback into duty this season, Carolina’s 5-7 record is actually fairly impressive. Rivera likely won’t be out of work for long.
As for the timing of his dismissal, the Panthers reportedly wanted to begin its search for their next coach immediately. Owner David Tepper, who bought the team in May 2018, said in a statement that the franchise will undergo a “comprehensive and thorough review” of virtually all of its football operations starting immediately. His statement did not mention current general manager Marty Hurney.
Statement from #Panthers owner David Tepper also says changes are coming in the front office, with no mention of GM Marty Hurney: pic.twitter.com/mzNAJIN3dd— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) December 3, 2019
It appears to be a full house cleaning in Carolina, and the turnover is reaching all the way down to the scouting department:
Being told the Panthers are cleaning house in their scouting department, including 5 area scouts, Jeff Morrow (exec. director of player personnel) and Eric Stokes (director of college scouting).— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) December 3, 2019
Tepper clearly wants to rethink how the Panthers operate. This is as drastic as an overhaul gets in the NFL, and Carolina could go in a number of different directions.
Last offseason’s coaching carousel was defined by the league’s search for the next Sean McVay. This year, the “it” team is the Ravens, and Tepper’s admission that he wants to find “the right mix of old-school discipline and toughness with modern and innovative processes” sure sounds like what Baltimore has done by pairing a run-heavy offensive approach with quarterback Lamar Jackson and operating with an analytics-first mind-set. The Panthers hired a 27-year-old director of analytics during the offseason, which indicates that they are prepared to embrace advanced stats.
Of course, there is only one Lamar Jackson—but the Panthers have a similar quarterback on the roster. Could they build a juggernaut offense around Newton the way the Ravens have with Jackson? Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman will be a hot head-coaching candidate this offseason. If any NFL team wants to build the Ravens 2.0, the Panthers are best positioned to do it.
But the Panthers may not want to follow in the footsteps of another team, and Newton’s tenure with the franchise that drafted him may come to a close after a shoulder injury sapped his effectiveness toward the end of last season and lingered into 2019. Newton is under contract for 2020, but the Panthers can cut him and save more than $19 million on the cap. Figuring out whether to build around Newton or move on will be the first order of business for the new head coach and front office.
If the Panthers do move on from Newton, they’ll have to find a new quarterback. Allen, who has thrown for 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while compiling the second-worst QBR in the league, doesn’t look like a long-term answer. The team is currently slotted to pick 14th overall—likely not quite high enough to grab a vaunted quarterback prospect like LSU’s Joe Burrow or Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.
Whether the Panthers end up looking like the Ravens or something else entirely, big change is coming to Carolina. Rivera was not a bad coach—he may have even been a pretty good one. But this franchise is ready for a new chapter, and decided to jump-start its overhaul.