Ron Rivera returned to Charlotte on Sunday night feeling refreshed and hopeful, a potential reprieve from forced relocation firmly in his sights. Having guided the Carolina Panthers to a 21-13 victory over the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field earlier that afternoon, a triumph that ended the visiting team's five-game losing streak, Rivera emerged from an extended run of frustration with some much-needed validation.
In a business in which success is often fleeting and job security seems to fluctuate with every chest bump and mini-slump, Rivera knows the score: As much as the second-year coach is convinced that the Panthers are buying into his teachings and evolving into a highly competitive ensemble, there's no guarantee they'll have enough days like Sunday to ensure he'll remain beyond this season.
For that matter, veteran coach Mike Shanahan — the two-time Super Bowl winner whose team Rivera's defeated on Sunday — can't be 100-percent certain that he's on solid footing, despite some promising developments in the nation's capital. Realistically, at least 10 of the league's head coaches may need to show something over the second half of the season to avoid being relieved of their duties.
Some situations — like Rivera's — are more blatantly tenuous than others. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson put Rivera on blast two weeks ago when, the morning after a 19-14 home defeat to the Dallas Cowboys, longtime general manager Marty Hurney was abruptly fired.
Rivera learned of Richardson's decision to get rid of Hurney, a man the first-time head coach considered a valued mentor, in a Monday morning meeting with the owner, who proceeded to lay out the standard for avoiding a similar fate.
"It was hard, but my discussion with Mr. Richardson was a good one," Rivera recalled Sunday. "He told me that we are in a production-based business. You have to perform. I get it. I understand his point.
"The biggest thing is we have to be trending up. We have to be showing that we are improving as a football team. Whether that's a specific number of wins, I don't know. To some degree, it's about perception. People have to see that we're competing. And I think these last five weeks, you can see there is a reason [to believe that we are]. Now, it's about learning how to win those games."
On Sunday, after dropping their previous four games by a total of 12 points, the Panthers (2-6) took control against the Redskins (3-6) and held on for the victory. Upon losing a game that he had described coming in as "must win" — and suffering his third consecutive defeat, and 27th in 41 games since coming to Washington — Shanahan essentially admitted that he's looking ahead to next season, telling reporters, "When you lose a game like that, now you're playing to see who, obviously, is going to be on your football team for years to come. Now we get a chance to evaluate players and see where we're at. Obviously we're not out of it statistically. But now we find out what type of character we've got and how guys keep on fighting through the rest of the season."
[Winners/losers: Andrew Luck gaining ground on Robert Griffin III]
Perhaps Shanahan – having identified, aggressively pursued and developed a franchise quarterback in No. 2 overall draft pick Robert Griffin III – believes he has that luxury. Given that Shanahan's enthusiasm about landing RG3 was likely the driving force behind the pricey trade the 'Skins made to pry the pick from the St. Louis Rams — and that, halfway through Griffin's rookie season, it seems to have been highly justified — the notion that owner Dan Snyder would make a coaching change seems highly dubious.
Then again, Snyder has seldom been lauded for his patience, and the expectations raised by Griffin's early excellence and the Redskins' 3-3 start are hard to reconcile with a seven-game "evaluation" period.
Besides, Shanahan, of all people, should understand the fragility of the coach/franchise quarterback bond. After drafting and developing one (Jay Cutler) in Denver — and complementing him with a young, game-breaking receiver (Brandon Marshall) and top-shelf left tackle (Ryan Clady) — Shanahan was nonetheless fired by owner Pat Bowlen four years ago after an 8-8 season, ending a 14-year run.
Rivera, after highly successful stints as a defensive coordinator with the Chicago Bears and San Diego Chargers, is just trying to get to Year 3. He, too, has contended with heightened expectations raised by the presence of a young franchise quarterback: 2011 No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton, whose record-setting rookie season generated massive amounts of hype and compelled center Ryan Kalil to take out a newspaper ad predicting a Super Bowl victory.
Those high hopes — along with Newton's regression, the team's continued inability to pull out close games and an openly discussed locker-room leadership void — are among the reasons Rivera is now vulnerable. In fairness, he is far from alone. For starters, two of his strongest coaching influences, the Philadelphia Eagles' Andy Reid and the San Diego Chargers' Norv Turner, are locked in conspicuous battles to keep their respective jobs.
Turner, whose son, Scott, works for Rivera as the Panthers' quality-control coach, reportedly could have been fired had San Diego (4-4) not defeated the Kansas City Chiefs last Thursday night.
"Norv's a great survivor," Rivera said. "All he's ever done since he's been there is fielded competitive teams. You look at them and you say, 'Wow, they're getting to a point where they'll be really good.' But will he be around to be part of it?"
Reid, the current dean of NFL coaches, will need to rally the 3-4 Eagles in order to return for a 15th season, beginning with Monday night's pivotal showdown with the Saints (2-5) in New Orleans. The home team has struggled mightily this year while coach Sean Payton serves a suspension for his role in the team's pay-for-injure scandal, and Sunday's ESPN report that suggests he could be a free agent following the 2012 campaign should make a lot of current coaches feel less secure.
[More: Sean Payton's status beyond 2012 season unclear]
That group would include the Dallas Cowboys' Jason Garrett and the New York Jets' Rex Ryan, two of the many coaches who could be gone if their teams underwhelm in the second half of 2012. Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams called out second-year coach Mike Munchak after Sunday's 51-20 defeat to the Bears, and Pat Shurmur (Cleveland Browns) and Romeo Crennel (Chiefs) appear unlikely to keep their jobs barring sharp signs of improvement. The Arizona Cardinals' Ken Whisenhunt and the Buffalo Bills' Chan Gailey (whose general manager, Buddy Nix, insisted will be back in 2013) shouldn't feel completely secure, either.
Meanwhile, another wave of presumed fixers continues to swell. In addition to the possibility of Payton being in the mix, the list of attractive replacements could include Super Bowl winners-turned-broadcasters Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher; intriguing collegiate coaching stars like Oregon's Chip Kelly and Notre Dame's Brian Kelly; recently fired NFL head coaches such as Todd Haley and Hue Jackson; and well-regarded assistants like San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell and Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley.
Back when Rivera was an accomplished defensive coordinator, he eagerly awaited an opportunity to ascend to the next level. Now that he's a head coach, he's certainly not cursing his fate — but he understands that the gig comes with a sense of urgency.
Next Sunday, when former Panthers coach John Fox returns to Bank of America Stadium with Peyton Manning and a smoking-hot Broncos team, Rivera will be under plenty of pressure to have Newton and his teammates ready to compete. After beating the 'Skins, he's cautiously optimistic.
"We won six games last year, but we were competitive in all but two, and expectations were raised so high," Rivera said. "This year, we've been competitive in all but one, and finally, I think we've kind of found our way. At least, I think we have, after [Sunday].
"It's a hard job, and people don't like to hear us complain about what we do. But football has been great to me, and I think I have the right approach. Basically, you just stick to your guns, and things have a way of working out."
And if things don't work out to his owner's satisfaction, Rivera understands that he'll soon be working elsewhere.
1. I'm already looking forward to next Sunday night's super-sexy showdown between the Texans and Bears at Soldier Field — or, for you fans of a certain storied franchise, The Battle Of 7-1 Teams That Got Their Butts Kicked By The Pack.
2. Is it just me, or did that last-gasp scoring attempt by the Cowboys while trailing Atlanta 19-13 in the Georgia Dome Sunday night — Tony Romo running around in circles before flipping a short pass to Felix Jones, who ran headlong into a throng of Falcons 21 yards from the end zone with time expired — tell you everything you need to know about Dallas' season?
3. That was pretty sweet how Adrian Peterson slipped into that invisibility cloak, causing Seahawks defenders K.J. Wright and Brandon Mebane to collide comically on the sideline, in the midst of his ridiculous 74-yard run early in the Vikings' 30-20 defeat at Seattle. AD's rush was one of the best I've seen on an NFL field, though still the second-best at Century Link, behind You Know What.
4. Just as pollsters talk about candidates sometimes receiving a false bounce from a convention or debate, the Raiders (3-5) clearly got one from consecutive victories over the Jags and Chiefs — the two worst teams in football — before Doug Martin and the Bucs showed up in Oakland and provoked an emphatic correction.
5. Andrew Luck broke Cam Newton's rookie record for single-game passing yardage, throwing for 433 in the Colts' 23-20 victory over the Dolphins, but I'm fairly sure the mark he really wants is to become the first quarterback picked No. 1 overall pick to finish his maiden season with a winning record. Indy, now 5-3 after its third consecutive victory, could even be headed back to the postseason, though I wouldn't say that in the presence of a certain ex-Colts coach.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. Florida Gov. Rick Scott's "unconscionable" (predecessor and fellow Republican Charlie Crist's word, not mine) decision not to extend early voting hours in response to ridiculously long lines at the polls – and the notion that voter suppression could be explicitly employed as a partisan strategy in 21st-century America.
2. How frustrating these past 10 months have been for Saints fans. Think about it: Going into last January's divisional-round playoff game against the 49ers in San Francisco, some people thought high-scoring New Orleans was a legitimate threat to win its second Super Bowl in three seasons. Then the Saints blew a late lead and lost to the Niners, and while that stung a little, fans in the Crescent City were like, "Oh well — we'll come back stronger next year, and maybe we'll even get to play in the Super Bowl in our own stadium! Pour me another Turbo Dog, and laissez les bons temps rouler". Everything since then has pretty much been a buzzkill: The bounty scandal; the suspensions of coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis; the protracted contract dispute that kept quarterback Drew Brees away from the team during the tumultuous offseason; the player suspensions and the resulting, ongoing legal drama; the 0-4 start; etc., etc., etc. And now, Sunday's report about Sean Payton's contract extension. At this point, Saints fans are like, "What did we do to deserve this? When will this nightmare end? And how many drinks, exactly, must I consume to numb this pain?" Good times.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
When South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier mused last week that top-ranked Alabama would "be favored by a little bit" in a hypothetical matchup against one of the NFL's worst teams, I figured his comments would be laughed off by the masses as hyperbole. Then I remembered we live in a world of ceaseless NFL-related chatter — on TV, the radio, the Internet, Twitter and Whatever The Next Big Thing Is—and suddenly the issue was being debated on a widespread basis. I almost don't want to get started on this diatribe, because it could go on for a long, long time, but here are some of the ways in which even the most victory-challenged NFL team would overwhelm the Tide or any other collegiate powerhouse: physical dominance in the trenches; sideline-to-sideline speed; sophistication and variety of schemes; mastery of technique; special-teams precision and intensity; relative lack of dropoff between first and second units. That's just for starters. Such a matchup (or, more realistically, mismatch) would be sobering, and ugly, and merciless. A rightful spread would be something like NFL Team minus-42, and I wouldn't take the points. I would, however, be tempted to place a Gregg Williams-tribute prop bet on cartoffs, taking the over. Seriously, a more realistic question is whether a top NCAA basketball team could compete with an NFL team — in hoops.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"We always gotta win it like this in Cleveland!"
– Text Sunday afternoon from Ravens DE/OLB Terrell Suggs after Baltimore's 25-15, come-from-behind victory over the Browns.
Fantasy football advice for Monday Night Football: