CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Ron Rivera walked into the Panthers locker room wearing a shirt that read, “Wofford is coming.”
While several other head coaches around the league were being fired on Monday, Rivera said he expects to be coaching when the Panthers report to training camp next year at Wofford College following meetings with owner David Tepper.
“That’s my assumption because of our conversations talking about going forward. We will continue doing that,” Rivera said.
The Panthers started the season 6-2, but lost seven straight games leaving Rivera’s future in doubt. Carolina finished 7-9, missing the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
Rivera’s track record likely saved his job.
He is 71-56-1 in his eight seasons with Carolina has been to the playoffs four times and won three division titles, reaching the Super Bowl in 2015 after going 15-1 during the regular season.
Tepper, a former minority owner with the Steelers, is giving Rivera a little time to turn things around despite the surprising midseason meltdown. That follows suit with the Steelers’ business model, with only three head coaches since 1969.
“Ultimately you think about where Mr. Tepper is coming from, and that’s having been in Pittsburgh where they do things with patience and very direct with things,” Rivera said. “So I feel very fortunate. I have an opportunity to visit with him and talk with him about things in terms of our preparation going forward. We will continue do that and I will continue to work as we’re working toward next season.”
Tepper again declined interview requests on Monday through the team’s public relations department.
“He’s a great coach and he definitely deserves to be back,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said of Rivera.
While Rivera is staying, the Panthers have plenty of issues to deal with this offseason.
The most pressing revolves around the future of quarterback Cam Newton.
Newton, who has two years left on his contract, has struggled the last two seasons with shoulder problems and the team had to shut him down the final two games because he was unable to throw effectively more than 20 yards down the field. Newton has previously said he’s had the shoulder looked at but doctors can’t seem to determine what the issue is — or how to fix it.
He had surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff in 2017 and his arm strength has slowly deteriorated since, to the point where the Panthers would sub Newton out when they needed to throw a Hail Mary down the field.
Rivera said Monday he doesn’t know if the 2015 league MVP will need surgery or just plain rest.
“That’s a medical question and I’m not going to speculate on anything,” Rivera said. “I don’t know what the plan will be in terms of that until I get an opportunity to talk with (the doctors), but they’re going to talk to Cam eventually and Cam will have to make decisions going forward, as well.”
Rivera said if Newton needs surgery he would prefer he does it right away.
When asked Monday if he had time to talk, Newton breezed past reporters in the locker room and said, “Nope.”
There was a somber tone as many of the team’s long-time veterans cleaned out their lockers, putting personal items in cardboard boxes provided by the team. In many respects, it felt like the end of an era as many of the faces so familiar to this organization could be gone for good.
Five-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil already announced that he is retiring after 12 seasons in Carolina, and Rivera hinted after Sunday’s win in New Orleans that 38-year-old defensive end Julius Peppers wouldn’t be back either.
Peppers hasn’t talked about his future and wasn’t in the locker room.
However, defensive tackle Kyle Love wasn’t buying the idea that Peppers is done just yet, saying “I kind of feel like he is going to come back.”
“He’s been smiling and kind of giving little hints and whatever, so we will see,” Love said. “He still has something left in the tank.”
Outside linebacker Thomas Davis, a longtime fan favorite who has spent 13 seasons with the organization, said he wants to return.
But, like Peppers, Davis is set to become a free agent and it’s unclear if the Panthers will look to younger alternatives.
“I want to be confident that I’m going to be in a Panthers uniform,” Davis said. “I don’t even want to think about playing for another team.”
Panthers general manager Marty Hurney will also have to make difficult decisions on whether to bring back 33-year-old tight end Greg Olsen, left tackle Matt Kalil, wide receiver Torrey Smith, defensive tackle Dontari Poe, safety Mike Adams and Munnerlyn — players who have missed time due to injuries or are getting up there in age.
Devin Funchess, once considered the team’s No. 1 receiver, is not expected to be re-signed after his role was vastly reduced near the end of the season and he was deactivated in Week 17.
Panthers wide receiver Jarius Wright called it a “rollercoaster season,” but said the team still has a lot of pieces in place to build around for the future including running back Christian McCaffrey, who amassed 1,965 yards from scrimmage and scored 13 touchdowns. The Panthers will draft 16th overall in April.
“I know for sure there will be changes made, but we just have to endure,” Wright said.
It was easy to pinpoint the defining moment of the Panthers’ season.
After a 6-2 start, Carolina travelled to Pittsburgh on a Thursday night and lost 52-21 to the Steelers in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score might indicate.
“We could never stop the bleeding from that game,” Munnerlyn said. “It seemed liked everything went wrong after that point.”