Waiting Is the Smartest Part
It both pleases and surprises me to report that patience was the league’s biggest winner in Week 10, and that’s a refreshing rarity in the over-reactionary NFL. In today’s game, the willingness to wait for it has gone the way of the run-centric offense, but score one for resolve and persistence in Carolina.
The face of the Panthers’ perseverance is of course Ron Rivera. His Panthers are on the ascent at 6-3, in line for at least an NFC wild-card berth (and maybe considerably more), and he’s suddenly viewed as a legitimate coach of the year candidate rather than a dead man walking. See what a five-game winning streak can do for a guy?
I like it when the script gets flipped and we re-learn the value of not rushing to judgment. (And yes, I do see the irony of that statement coming from someone who writes the Snap Judgments column every NFL Sunday for SI.com). Go back and see what everyone was saying about Rivera five weeks ago, when the Panthers started 1-3 and were on the cusp of eliminating themselves from contention in the NFC South before Halloween for the third consecutive year. There was an NFL Network report, denied vehemently by the team, that Carolina was already doing background checks on potential new coaches. Everyone seemingly was preparing Rivera’s coaching obituary in Carolina, and thinking he was about to meet the same fate longtime Panthers general manager Marty Hurney met last fall: “Thank you for your service, now turn in your key card and surrender your parking spot.’’
But in the nick of time, Rivera and his Panthers started winning. And they haven’t stopped. And Sunday’s statement-game 10-9 win at San Francisco was the W that got everyone’s attention and validated Rivera’s work as being of the non-mirage variety. The Panthers have a solid foundation built, especially on defense, and it’s paying off with the best sustained run of football seen in Charlotte since 2008.
Rivera’s coaching style doesn’t ooze charisma, and sometimes leadership that relies on strength and steadiness takes a while to show results. If you’re willing to wait for it. Frankly, the veteran defensive coordinator-turned-head coach was probably learning on the job to a degree in 2011 and 2012, when his Panthers started 1-5 and 1-6, respectively, before rallying to finishes of 6-10 and 7-9. It took time for him to build around his team’s young talent on defense, and yet that still came faster than the process of rounding out the rough edges on franchise quarterback Cam Newton, who this season has stopped making the mistakes that lose games and started playing more reliably and under control.
Patience has been a big part of the winning picture in Carolina, but interestingly, a sense of urgency was also instrumental in the emergence of Rivera’s team as a playoff contender. One of the biggest stories of the Panthers’ season has been the change Rivera made to his approach on offense, where he has gone against his instinctive tendency for being overly cautious and begun regularly letting his team go for it on fourth downs. The birth of the "Riverboat Ron" persona could certainly be viewed as an act of desperation by a coach with nothing to lose but his job, but when those gambles work, as they have for the most part, it instills confidence in the players and casts Rivera as a coach who just needed time to learn and know his team, and unlock its potential.
After a distinguished career as a defensive assistant coach and coordinator in the NFL, Rivera had to wait a long time and endure a lot of near misses before landing his first head coaching gig in 2011. So the man knows something about the rewards of patience, and how time can do its work if you are able to keep the long view in sight even while you take care of today’s tasks. Even his two coordinators—Sean McDermott on defense and Mike Shula on offense—are reminders that a lack of early success doesn’t tell the whole story, with both overcoming notable failures in their coaching careers to currently play their roles as part of the solution in Carolina.
Patience has paid off for the Panthers, and it took a dose of it just to get Rivera to year three in Carolina. After last season’s 7-9 record in a year that kicked off with a published Super Bowl promise from Panthers center Ryan Kalil, Rivera was given a reprieve last January by Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who then proceeded to hire longtime Giants personnel man Dave Gettleman as his new general manager, even before Gettleman and Rivera had ever met. The writing seemed to be on the wall regarding Rivera and a lame-duck season, but maybe we missed something obvious regarding our assumption that Gettleman would in due time want to hire his own guy as the Panthers head coach.
Gettleman, at 61 and with 25 years in the league working at the club personnel level, had exhibited a decent understanding of the virtue of patience himself. He said when he was introduced in the Carolina job he had begun to wonder in recent years if he would ever get taken seriously as a candidate for GM openings around the NFL, thinking perhaps his time had come and gone.
"They say good things come to those who wait and I feel like this is absolutely the perfect fit for me," Gettleman said, upon arriving in Charlotte. Waiting and persistence are something Rivera and Gettleman had in common, and neither man was known for making rash decisions in the heat of the moment. Maybe their pairing was the perfect fit that we missed on first glance.
To be sure, there is plenty more work to be done in Carolina and no time for celebration. The Panthers passed their first big-stage test with flying colors last Sunday in San Francisco, but now face another even bigger challenge in Monday night’s showdown with visiting New England, with the Patriots at 7-2 and once again in command of things in the AFC East. It’s the biggest home game for Carolina since the Panthers’ galling NFC divisional-round playoff loss to Arizona in early 2009, a defeat that stunned the organization and launched a streak of four consecutive non-winning seasons.
After the Patriots game, the Panthers hope to hone in on the NFC South title. Trailing the first-place Saints (7-2) by just a game, Carolina is buoyed by the fact it still plays New Orleans twice in December, at the Superdome in Week 14 and in Charlotte in Week 16. The Panthers probably won’t be given a great chance to chase down the Saints, but then again, they weren’t even expected to make this race. And here they are. The product of perseverance, an aversion to over-reaction, and a winning formula that took time to coalesce.