It can be true that Ron Rivera was the best head coach in Panthers history—a known mensch around the league and a person who has developed a great deal of talent, especially on defense. It can also be true that firing him with a month to go in the season was absolutely the right decision for second-year owner David Tepper to make.
Rivera did not deserve to go out as the typical lame duck, losing his job before the season is over. But there was no way Tepper was going to be able to conduct his first head-coaching search successfully without getting this head start.
Why? This particular coaching carousel is going to get weird. That’s a good thing for the NFL fan who desires new thoughts and ideas, but it’s particularly arduous for an owner who will almost certainly have to step outside of the comfort zone of lukewarm-assistant-from-contending-team. There are prominent names who are out of coaching altogether. There are prominent names in college coaching who don’t have much on their plate over these next few weeks save for a conference championship game and preparation for the Honey Bunches of Oats Bowl. The necessary evaluations and background checks for prospective coaches take time.
In the hours following Rivera’s dismissal, it was noted that Carolina may want to go in a more analytics-based direction with its next head coaching hire. This is not the kind of person you can pick out among a large list of candidates during a day-long interview marathon at your local airport Marriott hotel.
The tragedy of most NFL coaching hires is that they are done competitively and on the fly. There is a group of coaches elevated to a certain status, and teams fight over said acceptable candidates. In the process, they sloppily look past transgressions and steamroll over the kinds of red flags that might give any corporation pause when hiring a chief executive officer. Then three weeks into the regular season, teams realize that while their candidate appeared to be impressive during the interview process—for which the candidate was thoroughly prepped—it turns out the newly hired coach is a poor communicator or an ineffective leader or a middling developer of talent.
When Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie fired Chip Kelly with a week to go in the 2016 season, he did so with the idea that he was going to effectively utilize that time. He talked about interviewing the players and finding out what kind of person for whom they would want to play. It would seem to me that smarter organizations over the past two decades—especially in recent years when the hiring process became especially condensed—have found ways to take advantage of that space before the NFL’s Black Monday.
Waiting for Black Monday to fire a head coach has become somewhat synonymous with indecision or at least some kind of delusion. If you dislike a candidate’s performance so much in early December and are out of the playoffs, what changes over the final three weeks? Maybe it’s sentimentality. Maybe it’s anecdotal progress that you convince yourself of. Either way, it’s not a logical decision, and it’s costing the organization valuable time at a point on the NFL calendar where it’s all but assumed that most coaches worth exploring are already putting together shadow staffs and making their pitches behind closed doors.
Secondary coach Perry Fewell will step in as the Panthers’ interim head coach, while offensive coordinator Norv Turner will shift to special assistant to the head coach and QBs coach Scott Turner will be offensive coordinator. This leaves Rivera to now make himself available, and he will certainly be a viable candidate ahead of the 2020 season should he desire to continue coaching. At least Tepper is trying to make sure that his first major decision as owner of the Panthers is not remembered as a gigantic mistake.
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