CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Those that know Ron Rivera say the seventh-year Carolina Panthers coach is at his best when handling crisis or off-the-field distractions.
But it’s the most recent crisis situation, the NFL investigation into Jerry Richardson for workplace misconduct and the owner’s plan to sell the team after the season, that could prevent Rivera from getting a contract extension anytime soon.
Rivera deserves the extension now for getting Carolina (11-4) to the playoff for the fourth time in five seasons. Only the New England Patriots and possibly the Seattle Seahawks have reached the postseason more times than the Panthers during that span.
New England has made the playoffs each of the past five seasons and nine straight seasons overall. Seattle would need to win on Sunday against Arizona and have the Panthers beat Atlanta (9-6) to make it 5-for-5.
But it seems unrealistic to think Rivera, who in 2018 will be entering the final year of his contract, will get an extension until new ownership takes over next year.
Richardson could make an extension one of his final gifts to Rivera before leaving. The two have a tight bond.
Rivera expressed how he feels about the 81-year-old owner on Sunday when he broke down his players with “Mr. Richardson" after a 22-19 playoff-clinching win against Tampa Bay.
Richardson stuck by Rivera in 2013 when the Panthers opened with a 1-3 record following consecutive losing seasons. It paid off as Rivera went on to win the NFL Coach of the Year Award that season and again in 2015 when he led the Panthers to Super Bowl 50, where they lost 24-10 to Denver.
But Richardson has given up the day-to-day operations of the team to Tina Becker, who should have a say in the decision. And Becker, like most in management, has a lame-duck status since the new owner could clean house.
General manager Marty Hurney could recommend an extension, but he still has the interim tag to his title. He, too, is in a lame-duck situation.
To give Rivera an extension before the new owner takes over would leave the organization open to having to pay a hefty buyout should new ownership decide to bring in his or her own people this year or after the 2018 season.
It would be a stronger show of support for Rivera if his extension came from the new boss. It also would be a signal that the culture Rivera has helped build here, a culture that has helped make the Panthers a good landing spot for free agents, will remain intact.
Players like Rivera. They respect him not only for the unprecedented success he’s brought to the Carolina organization, but how he’s handled crisis situations.
And Rivera’s had plenty, from the 2013 season when the Panthers could have collapsed at 1-3 to the 2014 season when he benched DE Greg Hardy for the second game before Hardy was benched for the season by commissioner Roger Goodell while he faced domestic violence charges to the way he’s handled off-the-field miscues by quarterback Cam Newton to the current situation.
"He’s real," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said when explaining why Rivera excels under the most strenuous times. “He doesn’t hold anything back in regards to how he feels. What he’s thinking is basically what he’s letting the players and coaches know. And I think guys really appreciate, not the honesty, but the open-mindedness."
Running back Fozzy Whittaker agreed.
"The biggest thing is he’s the same guy," he said. "Nothing gets under his skin, which in turn translates into nothing affects us as well. So whenever you see your leader being able to handle the ups and downs of whatever is going on, we feed off that same type of energy and the way that he’s handling the situation."
Linebacker Luke Kuechly said it all starts with Rivera when asked how the team stays focused on football under stressful times.
That along with a record of 51-27-1 since 2013 should make an extension automatic for Rivera. Seattle coach Pete Carroll’s record of 54-24-1 during that span isn’t much different, although Carroll did win the Super Bowl in 2013, and he’s one of the highest-paid coaches in the NFL at a reported $8 million-plus a year.
Rivera also has put together a top-notch staff. Carolina's former defensive coordinator Sean McDermott went to Buffalo as the head coach this past offseason and has the Bills in position to possibly make the playoffs. McDermott’s replacement, Steve Wilks, could be in line for the head coaching job with the New York Giants after former Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman on Thursday was named the GM there.
That Rivera adjusted to Richardson’s decision to fire Gettleman the week before training camp also is a testament to the coach’s ability to handle distractions.
Rivera’s last extension, three years valued at $19.5 million, came after the 2015 Super Bowl season. Should the Panthers get back to the Super Bowl this year, his leverage would be even stronger.
It would put Rivera in line to be paid in the range of Carroll and New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, reportedly making at least $9 million a year after signing a five-year, $45 million extension last year.
Rivera already has positioned himself to get close to the $7.5 million a year New England’s Bill Belichick gets. A title might shoot him closer to Payton and Carroll, depending on how much the new owner values him.
But in all likelihood it will be the new owner that makes that decision.