It is a strange thing, not to know whether you will have a job next week and yet to have to answer questions publicly about this uncertainty.
That was Panther coach Ron Rivera’s awkward assignment Monday morning. He conducted his final scheduled “news” conference of 2012 without knowing the most essential news of all for his team: namely, whether he will be back in 2013 as Carolina’s head coach.
On what is traditionally known as “Black Monday” in the NFL, seven head coaches had already been fired by mid-afternoon, joining at least five suddenly unemployed general managers.
But it was “Gray Monday” for Rivera, who still didn’t know his own fate. He kept having to refer to a meeting with team owner Jerry Richardson that had not happened yet but that was imminent. After that meeting?
“We’ll go from there,” Rivera kept saying.
But where is “there” exactly?
Rivera’s Panthers won their final four games in a row to finish 7-9, one game better than Carolina’s record in his rookie head-coaching season of 2010.
But the Panthers also went 0-for-October, which rendered that fine December meaningless in terms of the playoff hunt.
Richardson fired GM Marty Hurney after the Panthers started 1-5, and so now Richardson has to make the GM decision, too. Whether Richardson or the new GM will make the call on Rivera’s future remains unclear, although Rivera has previously indicated he thought it would be Richardson who decides.
I continue to believe that Rivera deserves a third season. He has improved, taking more chances as a coach now and showing a better feel for game management. As I’ve written before, he should come back for 2013. And then if that Panther team doesn’t make the playoffs next season, he should be out.
Three years is long enough to tell whether he has it or not. Two is not.
“I’ll just say this: I think we’re better today than we were when I first got started,” Rivera said when asked to summarize his two-year Carolina career.
They are better, although that wasn’t too difficult given the Panthers team Rivera inherited was 2-14 and had Jimmy Clausen rather than Cam Newton at quarterback.
Rivera is 13-19 in two years. But he has earned the respect of the players. The ones who spoke to reporters after the final team meeting Monday morning unanimously gave him their support.
Said offensive lineman Geoff Hangartner: “I’ve been on teams and we’ve all seen teams that start 2-8 and finish 2-14 or 3-13. I think that … to finish on the note that we did really shows how we feel about coach and his staff.”
“Hopefully we keep it intact and keep moving forward, but those aren’t decisions for guys like me to make,” tight end Greg Olsen said.
“I hope he’ll be back,” defensive end Greg Hardy said. “He’s a good guy.”
Of course, players normally support the coaching status quo when asked. But Rivera is truly well-liked inside and outside the Panthers stadium.
At the moment, though, Richardson has left Rivera in the waiting room, having to read a magazine before he gets his diagnosis. This is a “Well, this is awkward” sort of moment for the whole franchise. And who knows where Richardson will go with this? The Panthers haven’t made the 76-year-old owner available to answer questions all season.
Is the wait tough on the coach?
“It is,” Rivera said. “But again, it’s part of this process we’re going through, and we’ll see how things unfold. … I’d like to have the opportunity to have the job, and that’s pretty much it.”
Soon, we will know Rivera’s fate. It will be there, in black and white.
But for now, there is only gray.
Scott Fowler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler