With Ron Rivera gone, Panthers must focus on Cam Newton's future

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper set the stage two weeks ago for Tuesday's firing of coach Ron Rivera when he said long-range mediocrity would not be tolerated.

Despite Rivera being a two-time NFL Coach of the Year and taking the Panthers to the Super Bowl in 2015, his overall track record in nine seasons was mediocre.

He had three winning seasons.

He never had consecutive winning seasons.

He was on the verge of missing the playoffs for the second straight season and third time in four years since losing to Denver in Super Bowl 50.

And he had a 12-16 record since Tepper spent an NFL-record $2.275 billion to purchase the Panthers in 2018.

The question of Rivera's future is answered, but many questions about the Panthers' future remain.

Why fire Rivera now?

Remember, Tepper said a few weeks ago, after an embarrassing 29-3 home loss to an Atlanta Falcons team that entered with only two wins, that he got up twice in the middle of the night because he was so angry. He probably didn't sleep at all after Sunday's 29-21 home loss to a Washington Redskins team that entered with only two wins. That gave the Panthers (5-7) three losses to teams with losing records at home, all but taking Carolina out of playoff contention.

Tepper had made up his mind to replace Rivera after the season, so there was no reason for him to continue with him over the final four games. Fans already were calling for Rivera's head and were showing their displeasure with empty seats -- not good for an owner who wants to convince city officials and fans to build him a new domed stadium in the next decade. Making the move now at least gives fans reason to look forward. It also gets Tepper out in front of the search with more coaches expected to be fired by the end of the season.

Who will be interim head coach?

Secondary coach Perry Fewell was an interim head coach for the Buffalo Bills at the end of the 2009 season, so he has experience at the job. He's not a contender to become the next head coach, so when Tepper moves on from him it won't be a surprise.

The more interesting decision was moving Rivera's good friend, offensive coordinator Norv Turner, to special assistant to Fewell and making quarterbacks coach Scott Turner the offensive coordinator. Norv Turner has head-coaching experience, so that's a positive for Fewell. But one could interpret that Tepper isn't thrilled with the offensive playcalling this season. The Panthers have lost three games where they couldn't gain 1 yard in critical situations.

How does the Cam Newton situation affect the search?

As Tepper said a few weeks ago, Newton's foot injury has to heal before a decision can be made on his future with the team. Tepper also said a healthy Newton still can be a top quarterback. But Newton's future will likely be decided by what the new coach wants. If that person wants a pure pocket passer, Newton likely is gone. As Newton said last summer, he'll always be a running quarterback. He just won't be a runner in the sense he was earlier in his career.

If the new coach believes Newton can be effective as a passer and wants to implement Newton's dual-threat abilities into his offense, then Newton likely will be kept. His salary-cap hit next season is $21.1 million, not a lot for a top quarterback. While the team could save $19.1 million by releasing Newton, which would come in handy to re-sign or extend many top players such as running back Christian McCaffrey, much depends on what players the new coach wants to keep. The new coach's evaluation of Kyle Allen, who won his first four starts after replacing Newton and his first five overall before losing four of the past five, will also be a factor.

What about the GM?

Marty Hurney appears to be safe, at least for now, based on Tepper's statement.

"One change that we will implement is hiring an assistant general manager and vice president of football operations," Tepper said. "We all must recognize that this is the first step in a process, but we are committed to building and maintaining a championship culture for our team and our fans."

Hurney drafted the team that got the Panthers to the Super Bowl in 2003 and drafted many of the key players who led Carolina to the title game in 2015. Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly are among them. His past three drafts have produced McCaffrey, who leads the NFL in total yards from scrimmage, wide receiver DJ Moore and outside linebacker Brian Burns, to name a few. There is belief in the building Hurney can help the team to long-term success, but the eventual hiring of an assistant GM does give Tepper wiggle room in case he changes his mind. Don't be surprised if that person comes from the Pittsburgh Steelers organization. Tepper is a native of Pittsburgh and was a minority owner of the Steelers for nine years prior to purchasing the Panthers.

What's the biggest issue the new coach must solve?

No issue is bigger than what to do with Newton, but after that it will be rebuilding the interior of both lines. That's what former general manager Dave Gettleman did with the existing talent Hurney brought in. It got the Panthers to a 15-1 record and trip to the Super Bowl in 2015.