Carolina Panthers' Ron Rivera holds off assessing season's damage

By The Sports Xchange
Carolina Panthers' Ron Rivera holds off assessing season's damage
Carolina Panthers Head Coach Ron Rivera looks at the scoreboard before they play the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, California on February 7, 2016. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

Ron Rivera wants to get through Carolina's season finale at Tampa Bay on New Year's Day before he reflects on what went wrong in 2016.

The Panthers coach on Monday, however, did drop a couple of hints that changes will be coming in 2017.


"You have to evolve. Things are going to change after six seasons," Rivera said. "When this is all done, we'll take a look back at some things and see what we've got to do as we go forward."

At best, the Panthers will win eight fewer games than they did last season. It's by far the steepest fall ever for a team coming off 15 wins, and it continues the franchise's now 22-year-old inability to put together back-to-back winning seasons.

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Injuries have played a part, but they also muddle the gray area between excuses and everything else that didn't go well.


First and foremost, general manager Dave Gettleman can be accused of resting on his laurels this offseason. He, of course, hasn't answered questions about the makeup of his roster since August, and it will be interesting to see if he admits to mistakes or regrets during his postseason press conference next week.

Secondly, the offense and quarterback Cam Newton regressed badly. The Panthers, who led the league with 31.2 points per game during Newton's MVP-winning season, are 14th in scoring with a 23.5 average.

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Set to shatter career lows in completion percentage (52.7 percent) and passer rating (77.5), Newton deserves blame for his disappointing season. But just like injuries aren't a one-size-fits-all excuse, he's not the sole reason for his decline.

Because you'd never fire the reigning MVP and your most important player, others around him are vulnerable. The offense has been broken for most of this season, which means coordinator Mike Shula and/or quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey are the most likely fall guys.

"There's a lot of things that we're going to look at," Rivera said. "We understand and we get that there's some things that have to evolve around him because he's evolving as a quarterback, as well. He's getting older and he's going to be a different style player. We know that much."


For what it's worth, the Panthers have cut back on centering so much of their offense on Newton's ability to run. But while his 87 attempts and 353 yards are well below the fewest of his career, this year's 'evolution' has instead been a big step backward for the entire unit.

Fiercely loyal, it's too early to know what changes Rivera will be willing to make. But even if owner Jerry Richardson and Gettleman have to chime in, changes are coming.

"I believe this is a blip," Rivera said.

"If you don't learn from this, then you've wasted it. I know that it hasn't been what we expected, what I expected. But I do know this - I'm going to learn from it, I'm going to grow from it and we'll be better."

--Receiver Kelvin Benjamin caught just four of his eight targets Saturday, but two of those receptions showcased something many believe Benjamin's lacked this season.

On the final play of the third quarter, he held off his defender to snag a 26-yard touchdown. Then, on the next drive, he stiff-armed and fought his way 18 yards on fourth-and-2.


"Kelvin made some plays and he played hard. You guys saw the energy he can bring when he is making plays and getting opportunities," Rivera said. "Kelvin probably had his best week this week. I thought he practiced very well. It looked like he was healthy. I don't think there are any lingering effects of his shoulder.

"He went out and was physical and that is the kind of receiver he is. He can be a dominant guy in this league."

Added Benjamin: "I'm trying to grow. I just want to be a leader and lead guys. I've got growing to do, too."

--If there's a silver lining in finishing last in your division, it's an easier schedule.

While the Panthers and Saints could each finish 2016 at 7-9, Carolina would lose the tiebreaker. That means the Panthers are assured of a fourth-place finish in the NFC South for the first time since 2010.

We already knew most of next year's schedule - each division opponent twice, plus a full slate of games against the NFC North and AFC East. But with the Panthers clinching last place, that locks in their final opponents - the Eagles and 49ers, who are each guaranteed to finish fourth in their respective divisions.


The Panthers' 2017 home opponents are: Falcons, Saints, Bucs, Packers, Vikings, Bills, Dolphins and Eagles.

The Panthers' 2017 away opponents are: Falcons, Saints, Bucs, Bears, Lions, Patriots, Jets and 49ers.

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