Bryan Strickland Senior Writer
CHARLOTTE – Panthers players came to the defense of head coach Ron Rivera following Sunday’s overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, saying that blame for a season full of narrow losses should fall on them rather than their coach.
Rivera appreciates the support but said Monday that he’s worried about his players rather than himself.
“I appreciate the fact that they’re concerned about me. I will tell them that I’m not concerned about me – I’m really not. I’m concerned about them,” Rivera said. “No matter what happens, I’ll be OK. Whether I’m here next year or not, I will be A-OK.”
Rivera believes that based on his discussions with Panthers Owner/Founder Jerry Richardson, he will be given the remainder of the season to show that he should return as head coach next season.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I won’t know until after the season – I know that much,” Rivera said. “From my conversations with Mr. Richardson, that’s my approach. That’s the way I look at it.
“He’s been great and supportive. It’s, ‘Ron, we’ve got to get things going. I know it’s frustrating on you and your coaches,’ because it’s frustrating on him. He’s been outstanding. He’s been fair and open. I talked with him on Friday, and he’s been as classy as ever. I could not ask for a better situation or set of circumstances.”
The Panthers again put a competitive product on the field Sunday, rallying from a 10-0 deficit to lead 21-10 deep into the fourth quarter, but again they couldn’t finish it off. The Buccaneers scored 11 points in the final 4:03 of regulation and then received the opening kickoff in overtime and drove 80 yards with little resistance for the victory.
The loss marked the fourth time this season the Panthers have lost a game that they led in the fourth quarter. In Rivera’s two seasons, Carolina is 1-11 in games decided by a touchdown or less.
“We have people looking and putting it on coaches, but it’s us,” linebacker
The latest loss dropped the Panthers to 2-8, the same record they had at this point in Rivera’s first season, at which point the team rallied to win four of its final six games. Combined with the Atlanta Falcons’ victory Sunday, the Panthers are mathematically eliminated from winning the NFC South title.
“It is frustrating, obviously, to not do what you set out to do every year,” Rivera said. “Every year, you have a specific set of goals, and you try to live up to those goals. First and foremost, more than anything else it’s about winning. Can we make a lot of things right by winning? Heck yeah.
“Believe me, it’s tough when you lose. Things aren’t as good as they are when you win, obviously. Food doesn’t taste right. It’s difficult to communicate with people, looking them in the eye and talking to them. It’s hard, and I get it. In the same respect, that’s what we’re in – we’re in a productivity-based business.”
And concerns with production, Rivera’s players said after the game, should fall on those in uniform.
“It’s just not fair to him that we’re not producing. We’ve just got to do a better job as players to produce,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “Coach Rivera coaches his tail off for us.”
Rivera said he has no qualms with his players’ commitment to winning, and he feels much the same way about the effort he’s putting forward. But he knows if the wins don’t come, that might not matter in the final equation.
“I’d like to believe that we’re doing enough, that we’re doing things the right way – but not completely obviously because we’ve lost too many games in close situations,” Rivera said. “But with the way these guys come to work, the way they practice and the commitment they’ve made, I think these guys are doing the things that you want teams to do.”
Rivera cited pregame preparations as an example, praising his players for their continued commitment in the face of mounting losses. Rather than hurrying home once they’re allowed to leave, players and coaches are putting in extra work even after the final whistle blows.
“I’d like to believe that as long as those are the things that you see from the players, then we’re doing things the right way,” Rivera said. “But, having said that, we haven’t done everything the right way, either. We haven’t won.
“That’s the hard part. That’s the frustrating part that I get with everybody here, with the people in this building, with the fans who come to these games and that watch us on TV and listen on the radio and read what you guys write. They do deserve for us to win, and we’ve got to find a way.”