Heat's on Rivera, despite players' support

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- There was dejection on the face of Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman as he leaned against a wall in the entrance to the visitor's locker room following Sunday's 24-23 loss at Buffalo.

As I approached he raised his palm, forced a smile and politely declined, without saying a word, to talk about the team's 0-2 start.

But soon, maybe sooner than Gettleman ever dreamed when he left the New York Giants in January to take on this challenge in Carolina, he might have to address a very big question:

Stick with head coach Ron Rivera or make a switch?

Chronic losing sometimes forces that hand, regardless of whether you believe the team is headed in the right direction. One thing is clear: The Panthers are not headed in the right direction when it comes to deciding close games. They lost to Seattle by five before the one-point defeat in Buffalo, and are now 2-14 under Rivera in games decided by seven points or less.

Win 50 percent of those games and records of 7-9 and 6-10 the past two seasons could be reversed. The Panthers may even have made the playoffs once or twice.

They didn't.

And now they are staring into the barrel of scrutiny and criticism that all losing teams face.

This loss in particular will bring out the critics. The Panthers allowed rookie quarterback EJ Manuel to engineer a game-winning, 80-yard touchdown drive with no timeouts over the final 1:42. Despite a rash of injuries to an already beleaguered secondary, this shouldn't happen to a team that a week earlier held highly touted Seattle to 12 points.

"This is like going to the dentist and getting several teeth pulled without any anesthesia, laughing gas ... nothing," wide receiver Steve Smith said. "Man, it's tough. Sickening.

"It opens up the door of criticism, complaining, of finger-pointing, of questioning what is or what isn't. ... At the end of the day, Coach Rivera [and his coordinators] call plays. As players, we actually have to execute them. Some of us are executing and some aren't."

Smith didn't name names. He didn't have to.

You can point at the secondary that made Manuel look like Brett Favre. Manuel was sacked just once and completed 27 of 39 pass attempts for 296 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown with two second left.

You can point to the wide receivers who let what appeared to be long touchdown passes slip through their hands. You can blame quarterback Cam Newton for overthrowing them more than three times or not turning two fourth-quarter turnovers by his defense into touchdowns.

You can blame the injuries to free safety Charles Godfrey (Achilles) and strong safety Quintin Mikell (ankle), who left wearing boot casts and their seasons in question.

But ultimately, one person will get the blame.

"Coach Rivera cannot run a rout, catch a pass or even throw," Smith said. "He can't cover anybody. He's the head coach. The unfortunate part is he's going to get the blame for it that we aren't this, we aren't that."

That leads to the bigger question: Are the Panthers heading in the right direction?

To a man the players said yes.

"We've got a few people that obviously are going the wrong way," Smith said. "We'll get them pointed in the right direction. We're going to move forward with them or without them, but the train is going to move forward."

That was Rivera's message. It was the message of everyone asked.

"Coach Rivera is doing an outstanding job of getting us ready to play," strong safety Mike Mitchell said. "We've just got to finish the games. We've got to finish the football game and find a way to win.

"I believe in every coach that we have. I believe in every player. There's not a person in this organization I don't believe in. There's not a doubt in my mind we're heading in the right direction."

Unfortunately, the record doesn't indicate that, particularly in close games. A loss next week in Charlotte to Gettleman's former Giants team that is 0-2 would put Carolina 0-3 heading into a bye week and really fire up the hot seat.

A year ago, Carolina fired general manager Marty Hurney after a 1-5 start. This, as one player said, has that same kind of feel, even though it hasn't gotten that bad.


"As players, we let each other down," Smith said. "We let our fan base down. We also opened the door for criticism. So we've got to be able to weather that storm and understand it."

Or put Gettleman in the position of answering a tough question.