Rivera goes from hot seat to hot commodity

After a rocky start, things are looking up for Ron Rivera and the Carolina Panthers. Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There was a time this season when Ron Rivera was on the proverbial hot seat. There was a time when the third-year Carolina Panthers coach was a prime candidate to be one of the day-after-the-season casualties like friends Rob Chudzinski and Leslie Frazier were on Monday.

There was a time when 83 percent of the local fans supported such a move, according to a Charlotte Observer poll taken in September.

Now Rivera is a prime candidate for coach of the year.

One easily could argue he should be the favorite after taking the Panthers from 1-3 to 12-4, the NFC South title and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

And oh, 92 percent in a Monday Observer poll support that.

Rivera has gone from the hot seat to so hot that he deserves a long-term extension.

But while many of us in the media were speculating on Rivera's future at 0-2 and 1-3, Rivera was working to improve. He believed the Panthers had the talent to be right where they are.

He never envisioned not being here to finish the job.

"No,'' Rivera said. "I always felt I would be right where I am.''

Having said that, Riviera admitted he's "very fortunate'' to be where he was on Monday, talking about potential playoff matchups against Philadelphia, Green Bay or San Francisco instead of cleaning out his desk as five other head coaches were.

He's here because he never stopped believing he was doing things the right way. He's here because he had players who believed in him.

"People started talking about Coach Rivera being on the hot seat,'' linebacker Thomas Davis told me following Sunday's 21-20 victory at Atlanta. "For that to happen, it falls back on the players. Once you start replacing coaches, you start replacing players as well.

"We started doing whatever we had to do so everybody would keep their jobs.''

All Rivera thought about was doing his job, which says all you need to know about the man.

"I talked to players when I first got the job and talked about where I believed we could be,'' he said. "I believed we could win it all. We could win the Super Bowl, and that's one of the visions.

"So for us to be where we are today is part of that. It is satisfying, but again we're not done. There's a lot of work still left to do.''

Rivera always believed the Panthers would be a playoff team by the third season. If it happened sooner, that would be a bonus. But taking over a team coming off a 2-14 season, he knew it would take time.

That's why nobody was more frustrated than Rivera with the 1-3 start following consecutive years of slow starts -- 1-6 in 2012, 1-5 in 2011.

"I didn't expect to be where we are right now,'' Rivera said after a 24-23 loss at Buffalo left Carolina 0-2. "I expected we would have opportunities to win both games and expected to win both of them, and it didn't work that way. That's what's disappointing. We had opportunities and we didn't do it.

"Based on what we've done, I'd like to believe we should win those. Going into Sunday, I expect to win.''

The Panthers won the next week, 38-0 against the New York Giants. After stubbing their toe at Arizona after the bye week, they went on an eight-game winning streak.

They enter the playoffs with 11 wins in their last 12 games. No team is hotter.

You'd never know it by Rivera, who has planned out a bye-week schedule to focus on improvements.

"In all honesty, satisfying but not satisfied,'' Rivera said of what the team accomplished on Sunday. "It is most certainly one of the goals that you do set for yourself and your team as you go forward, and as a team we accomplished that first one. But there's a lot more left to go.''

And because team owner Jerry Richardson didn't make a rash decision on Rivera at a time when it could have been justified, there are more seasons for Rivera at Carolina.