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The Panthers–Ron Rivera Divorce Is the Rare NFL Split That Benefits Both Parties

Team owner David Tepper wants to overhaul the team and modernize its operations. Rivera, meanwhile, will become the most sought-after coach on the market after his successful tenure in Carolina went stale.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Both of these things can be true: Ron Rivera is a very good coach. And Ron Rivera was probably not going to be a very good coach for the 2020 Carolina Panthers.

Rivera, fired Tuesday after nine years with the Panthers, including one Super Bowl appearance, four playoff berths, and any number of great GIFs, instantly vaults to the top of the list for teams in need of a head coach this offseason. Seventy-five percent of the NFC East should consider him a top candidate for their jobs—Washington now, and New York and Dallas if and when those jobs become available.

Rivera’s departure was inevitable, and so, too, is his eventual hiring by another NFL team in a few months. The reason Rivera probably can no longer be a good coach for the Panthers is that the franchise is trying, under new owner David Tepper, to be aggressively modern and analytics-driven and, as he said on Tuesday, Rivera “accepted it to a certain extent. He knows where it is, but he also has 35 years in the game of doing things a certain way. That would take a lot of time.”

In a way, this works for everyone: Rivera gets to go to a new team, improve it, and run it the way he wants. Tepper gets to improve his team by getting ultramodern. Rivera is a good coach, but he is not ultramodern.

For my first story for The Ringer in 2016, I wrote about friction between coaches, front offices, and the league office caused by the spread of analytics and technology. It included a bit on the debate among coaches about how much and what kinds of technology they wanted to implement in the game. In the reporting process, I’d heard that Rivera had given an impassioned plea at a league meeting against technology—specifically increased video technology on the sideline during games. I asked him whether he wanted to comment on what I’d heard—he got on the phone within about an hour and not only confirmed what he said but repeated it verbatim to me for use in the article. Rivera told me he thought it was unfair to have live video and other technological mechanisms on the sideline because it would minimize the value of the work coaches put in. He told me: “Where does it end? Can you get text messages or go out there with an iPhone and figure out where to go? What are we creating? I know there are millennial players, but this is still a game created 100 years ago. … I want to get beat on the field. I don’t want to get beat because someone used a tool or technology.”

I talked to a lot of coaches for that story, and almost none of them would speak on the record about this stuff. Rivera, who was far from the only coach who felt this way, was comfortable talking about it because he is unusually honest for a football coach and he’s unapologetically himself when it comes to the old-school elements of his approach. Rivera was not going to become the “How do you do, fellow kids” meme on the sideline by forcing a persona that wasn’t him. Rivera and I have talked a lot about analytics and where the game is headed. I’ve always been higher on analytics than he was in those conversations (this is, it should be noted, pretty typical of my conversations with NFL coaches), but he wasn’t totally resistant: Remember, Rivera became Riverboat Ron because he went for it on fourth down when it was wildly unpopular to do so. He told me he was influenced by two things to become the fourth-down guru: a banker he met at an awards dinner years ago who gave him data on fourth down, and The New York Times’ Fourth Down Bot.

But Rivera was never going to become Billy Beane. I think what happened Tuesday is probably going to happen inside a lot of teams: Ownership pushes for a new-school approach, and older-school coaches lose their jobs. In September, Tepper sounded like a certified member of NFL Twitter, discussing the value of first-down passes. “I just want to make sure analytics are applied,” he said. “I don’t want human biases to alter what we think is correct or not correct. There is an openness to it here, which is good. I want a tough mentality, I like grittiness, but this is a new age.”

The new age, in this case, will not include Rivera, a very good coach for a team that is not trying to do what the Panthers’ new ownership wants to be doing.

The NFL moves quickly: Just four years ago, the Panthers looked like they had the best team in the sport, reaching the Super Bowl after a 15-1 regular season with a young, dynamic quarterback, a deep defense, and a talented head coach. Cam Newton, banged up all season before being placed on the injured reserve last month, may have played his last snap with the team. Rivera is gone. Dave Gettleman, the general manager of that 2015 team, has since been fired and might be on his way to getting fired from his current job with the Giants. Cornerback Josh Norman, that team’s star cornerback, had his franchise tag revoked by the team and departed for the Redskins, where he’s playing his way out of town despite generally productive seasons before his current campaign.

Rivera accomplished something few coaches ever do: He built a great team, the 2015 Panthers. They won the NFC in an absolute destruction against the Cardinals in the conference title game, then suffered a weird defeat in the Super Bowl—a listless performance against a historically great Broncos defense.

It doesn’t matter to this particular discussion, of course, but I’ll note that Rivera is universally considered one of the nicest coaches in the sport. This picture came up today and illustrated the bond he had with his team:

But, of course, they lost that game. I think a lot about what Super Bowl losses do to teams. When you talk to people in the NFL, losing a Super Bowl comes up a hell of a lot more than winning a Super Bowl. The Panthers and Falcons have both suffered tough losses in that game this decade. The Rams have been in a funk since getting dismantled by the Patriots last February. It’s impossible to say what Rivera’s legacy (and Newton’s) would have been had they limited their mistakes that day and won. All we can say for certain is what we know now: Rivera will have his pick of jobs to try again.

It is very easy to sound like a good owner but significantly harder to be one. So it’s impossible to say, based on his comments Tuesday, that Tepper, a billionaire hedge fund legend, is a good owner, but he really sounds like one. “I have great respect for old-school toughness and discipline. Given my background, I lived in an analytical world. A stats world. It’s about innovative processes. Process management,” Tepper said. “A guy can do old-school process management too, but innovative process management. Modern and innovative techniques.”

Again, it’s easy to sound like that and then accidentally hire Jeff Fisher in January, but I’m guessing Tepper won’t make that sort of mistake. On Tuesday, he announced he’s adding more executive positions in a bid to rethink the front office. “Why is something that was done a long time the best management structure?” he said. “Why do you think that is? Why don’t I implement something that may be better?”

New owners can often make mistakes. MMQB’s Albert Breer points out that the last five new owners have pretty much all made bad hires out of the gate:

Implementing the process that brings success in the NFL is harder than saying you understand the process. We can’t make a determination about whether Tepper will fall into this trap yet. So who will he hire to replace Rivera?

“In the modern NFL, I think there is a preference for offensive coordinators. I think there are reasons for that. That does not mean that if you find somebody fantastic on the defensive side, I won’t consider it.” This seems to suggest he’ll favor a quarterback-guru type (Rivera, by the way, went 5-5 with Kyle Allen as his starter), though the NFL might be short on those after the great McVay Friend Hiring Spree of 2019.

Who the Panthers will hire is less obvious than who will go after Rivera, which is basically every team in need of a coach who can’t get an offensive star like Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley. Last month, when Tottenham Hotspur sacked its talented manager, Mauricio Pochettino, I tweeted that if the guy you just fired instantly becomes the best available option for your competitors, you probably should have kept him. What’s happening with Rivera is something slightly different: Rivera is the best option for a lot of teams, but not the Panthers. There is still a place for Ron Rivera in the modern NFL—and there will probably be a lot of room for David Tepper in the modern NFL, too.