NFL Mailbag: Ron Rivera’s Out in Carolina—What’s Next For David Tepper’s Team?

This is Tepper’s first big move as the Panthers’ team owner. How exactly did Rivera’s firing go down, and what can we expect in the coming weeks from him? Also, answering your questions on Odell Beckham Jr., potential candidates for the Cowboys next head coach (whenever Jason Garrett gets fired), Tua’s status, other coaches on the hot seat and more.
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Welcome to the new NFL mailbag—which is the same as the old mailbag, brought to you a day earlier. In the interest of transparency, we’ve decided to separate the mailbag portion from the Game Plan column to spread the content out and make it all more digestible. We found, at times, that readers weren’t making it to the end of the column—and I can’t blame you for that. I try to give you a lot in every piece I do, which leads to, well, a lot (of words). And we’re kicking around ideas on how to update the Monday column in a similar way.

Are there things you like? Things you don’t like? Let us know at talkback@themmqb.com.

Ron Rivera

Ron Rivera had a 76-63 record as head coach of the Carolina Panthers.

This week, we’ll start with a few quick thoughts on the Panthers’ firing of Ron Rivera.

• I'm told that Rivera delivered the news of his firing to his coaching staff in their 2 p.m. meeting. And while everyone knew it was a distinct possibility that Rivera wouldn’t be back in 2020 (and many assistants could be gone with him), the timing stunned the coaches. 

“Tough day,” said one. “It’s hard to to find words.” 

To his credit, as I’ve heard it, Rivera was every bit the standup guy about this situation as he had been through so many others in nearly nine years in Charlotte. Tepper had yet to address the coaches, as of late last night, but it’s not that unusual that an owner would tread carefully with his staff right after a firing.

• It’s no secret within the Panthers building, and around the league, that Tepper wants to build a forward-thinking, analytics-friendly football organization. But he wasn’t waiting to fire Rivera to get started on that. In fact, the coach told me back in August it was already in play.

“The whole analytics thing has really helped,” Rivera said. “All this really does is validate the things I already thought. And it’s helped me in my decision-making. I think the things I have learned from him, it’s organizational, the way he handles things, the way he handles people. The biggest thing, above anything else, is hey, take your best shot. If you make a mistake, you can correct it. Just have a plan going forward. That’s all he wants to know, what is my plan going forward? How am I going to approach it? But at the same time, with the analytics, if we can limit, and increase, then let’s do so.”

• Along those lines, the Panthers hired MIT grad Taylor Rajack away from the Eagles to head up their analytics department in June. He’s the franchise’s first director of football analytics, and it stands to reason he’d have some input on the looming search for a new head coach.

• It’ll be interesting to see how Tepper beefs up the front office. The owner said in his statement that he planned to add a VP of football operations and an assistant GM. Then, in his video interview with the team web site, he indicated that some of the shuffling could lead to changing roles for those remaining in the building, including sitting GM Marty Hurney. 

“There’s also new processes I want to bring in,” Tepper said. “I think the modern football organization needs a couple of people there. If I was looking in the future, if I’m looking at the manager in the future and looking up at who’s going to be there in the future and Marty is more senior, if I brought somebody else in, it could be a potential GM.”

Tepper also praised Hurney’s acumen on the college scouting side, and emphasized he saw a lot of merit in keeping him aboard—but it sure seems like he could be kept in a different capacity.

• New interim coach Perry Fewell’s promotion was interesting, because Fewell was considered a future head coach by many after winning a Super Bowl as Giants defensive coordinator in 2011. He interviewed for jobs but didn’t get one, and was later fired by Tom Coughlin three years after helping capture that championship.

• There’s a nice opportunity here for Scott Turner, promoted to offensive coordinator with his father Norv pushed over a special assistant role to help Fewell. The younger Turner has been heavily involved in game-planning and even some of the playcalling to this point. Getting the shot to do for real will be both a good experience for Turner and a shot to audition for all 32 in that kind of job.

• As for names to watch, Tepper’s connections here can be instructive. As a minority owner in Pittsburgh, he got to know Steelers GM Kevin Colbert. And with Colbert’s contract expiring, there’s been rampant speculation in the scouting community that the 62-year-old could land in Charlotte—maybe as an executive or, if he wants to slow down a bit, in more of an advisory role. The Kraft family was also huge fans of Tepper during the sale process, and so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him try to tap into the Patriot pipeline, either on the personal side (Nick Caserio?) or the coaching side (Josh McDaniels?).

As you can tell, while the headline here is Rivera’s firing, there will be a lot more to Tepper’s reimagining of the 25-year-old franchise over the next couple months. And based on his background—he arrived from the hedge-fund world as the NFL’s second wealthiest owner, behind the since-deceased Paul Allen—it should be interesting to see where this goes.

On to your mail …

Odell Beckham Jr.

From Ken Blankenship (@40yard_stache): What’s your post-mortem on Odell Beckham’s season? Stayed healthy all year but was largely ineffective.

It’s way more relevant that Greg Robinson is bad at left tackle than it is that Odell Beckham is good at flanker. Every offseason, people go head over heels for every skill player available, as if signing or trading for a receiver or running back is going to automatically put a team over the top. And that’s while the chief similarity among the four teams alive at the end last year was deep investment in the line of scrimmage.

Statistically, considering the circumstances, Beckham’s been fine. He’s pacing for 76 catches and 1,073 yards—behind what a normal year has been for him, but not terrible playing in a skill group that has more options than the ones he was a part of in New York had (making the team less reliant on him). And you could argue if a few things had gone a little differently this year, he’d be right where he normally would be.

(All of that’s a long way of explaining that I think people are focusing on the wrong things.)

From Kyle (@kinghammer_15): You’re Jerry Jones: Who is your new coach and why did you pick them?

Kyle, it’s a little complicated, because Jerry’s favorites are spoken for. But I do feel like there are two coaches he’d hire in a second: Saints’ Sean Payton, and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley. Payton just signed a new deal in New Orleans, so the Joneses won’t get their shot at him. As for Riley …

Both Jerry and Stephen Jones have a relationship with Riley, cultivated through the football recruitment of Stephen’s son (and Jerry’s grandson) John Stephen. I also know that, via that process, Cowboys ownership grew a great respect for Riley’s football acumen, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, and his salesmanship. So the groundwork there’s been in place for a while (and not in a shady sort of way), which leaves much up to Riley.

Would he go? Riley’s making $6.4 million per in a place where the cost of living is very reasonable, has a ton of job security, along with complete control of his football operation. That is to say, a team would have to give him pretty good reason to leave a place where he has gone 35-5, has posted three consecutive 11-1 regular seasons and will play for his third straight Big 12 title on Saturday.

All that said, Riley’s a Texan and it’s the Cowboys. You never know when that job will come open again, or it’d be tough to be as hot a candidate for it again as he is right now. And the roster and scouting department (led by personnel chief Will McClay) is as healthy as it’s been in a long time.

From Tua can have my hip (@FromRagsToGP): Is Tua going in the top five?

Hip, I’d hate to venture a guess until we have better information on Tagovailoa’s hip injury, and right now I’m not sure even he knows what his condition will be in six months. What we do know is that he’s now had serious injury issues in both his years as a college starter, and three resulting surgeries, and he’s not the biggest guy to begin with. So even in the best-case scenario with his hip, he’s going to get tagged as injury prone.

It’s fair to be worried about that too. Last month, I went through all the first-round QBs this decade, and pulled out the guys who came into the NFL after having injury issues in college—Sam Bradford, Jake Locker, Robert Griffin, Marcus Mariota, Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson. All of them, every single one, had significant injuries again in the NFL. And at that position, losing a starter is a killer.

As for Tagovailoa, after asking around after the injury, I came to the early conclusion that, for now, it probably knocks him down but not out of the top tier of the 2020 quarterback class. So I think now instead going into the process ahead of LSU’s Joe Burrow and Oregon’s Justin Herbert, he’ll enter it chasing them, but still in front of guys like Georgia’s Jake Fromm, Utah State’s Jordan Love and Washington’s Jacob Eason (if those guys declare).

From GMShuffler (@DraftRoomVoyeur): Top five offensive minds in the league? Reid, Payton, Shanahan...?

Good question, GM! Andy Reid, Sean Payton and Kyle Shanahan represent a good start, and I’d give you Rams coach Sean McVay and Patriots OC Josh McDaniels to round out the group. Both McVay and McDaniels’s units have been affected by shaky offensive lines in 2019, but I still think they are among the very brightest. And Bears coach Matt Nagy is another guy I think can dial them up, but he’s been a bit trapped by his situation this year.

Cool addendum to that too: A lot of those guys steal (borrow?) ideas from one another. Last year, we did stories on McVay and Payton stealing ideas off tape from one another, which is the ultimate show of respect among coaches. Check those out here and here.

From #GlazersOut (@Iamnotabot94): Does Rivera being free change anything for the Giants and Shurmur?

Glazer, nope. I don’t think the Giants would pull the plug on consecutive head coaches after each had served just two years. But it’s pretty clear that owner John Mara isn’t happy with where his franchise is, and if the season circles the drain over the next four weeks as it’s expected to, it makes sense to expect changes.

The level-headed Rivera would be a good fit for New York, and his standing relationship with GM Dave Gettleman is a bonus—the two were able to cultivate a good partnership in what was a shotgun marriage in Charlotte, even making it to a Super Bowl together. But if the Giants are going to pull the plug on Pat Shurmur this quickly, I’d expect a full-on search and evaluation of the football side of the building.

(Baylor’s Matt Rhule makes a lot of sense there, by the way.)

From Joe The GolfTraveler (@GolfTravelerBOS): Are you surprised Rivera got gassed in-season?

Not really, Joe. I didn’t expect it yesterday, but Rivera and his staff knew from the time Tepper bought the team two summers ago that this was on the table—a new owner comes in, and it’s common that he’ll want to bring in new personnel. And in that sense, I don’t see what happened here being too big an indictment on Rivera as a coach. He was there nine years. New boss comes in. It was time.

As for the timing, I think Tepper was being honest about his head coaching search. This allows him to get a jump on doing the background work necessary in finding his next head coach, and send signals out to candidates there might be competition for (like Rhule or Riley), without having to sneak around behind a sitting coach’s back. The really interesting part here will be how different the football side looks when Tepper’s done with the hiring.

From Mr. Buster (@BusterCannon1): Do you think Shad Khan would let Tom Coughlin fire Doug Marrone and stay in the front office in Jacksonville, or do you think Khan would clean house?

I think there’s a decent chance, Buster, that Khan cleans house. The team crashed after its 2017 breakthrough and there’s no great sign that a rebound’s coming, which has put everyone in peril. And it’s easy to see where Khan—now in his eighth full season of ownership, with just one winning season on his ledger – would have reached a point of frustration.

His handling of and involvement in the Jalen Ramsey trade was a good sign of where he stands. He was going to be careful of dealing off a player over a dispute with people who might not be around in 2020. And he laid strong ground rules for a trade (he wanted it to be clean, with no picks going back with Ramsey) before approving the idea.

Khan’s a sharp guy and has great potential as an owner. He also now has experience, and it’ll be interesting to see how he uses it over the next month or so.

From Tank Bricklayer (@tankbricklayer): Do Quinn and Dimitroff survive in Atlanta or are they fired at seasons end?

I think the writing’s on the wall for Dan Quinn—which is unfortunate, because we saw a lot of his potential as a head coach his first three years in Atlanta. I’m not as sure on GM Thomas Dimitroff, one way or the other. Owner Arthur Blank stuck with Dimitroff through the firing of Mike Smith, and it’s not like the roster’s a mess or the building is unhealthy.

But it’s certainly possible that Blank sees this as a chance to hit the reset button, and he may believe he can cast a wider net in seeking his next head coach (I’d expect to hear Rhule’s name here too) if there’s a clean slate in football ops.

From RolloR (@m_niller): What’s more likely? Brady plays next season or NE wins the Super Bowl this season?

This is a fun question, so I’ll indulge you, Rollo—I think Brady playing next season is more likely. But I’d also say I think there’s a better chance he retires than plays somewhere else in 2020. Confused? Don’t be.

I think Brady will want to play in 2020, and my feeling is the Patriots would have him back without a surefire answer at the position going forward (and the potential that Robert Kraft could get involved in wanting to keep Brady home). Would he want to play badly enough to do it somewhere else? That’s where I have some doubts. Starting over is tough for anyone, but especially a 42-year-old who’s been in one system his whole career.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.