The Charlotte Observer
2:07 am
Mon December 31, 2012

After 7-9 Season, What Comes Next For Panthers?

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera walks off the field following the team's victory over the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. The Panthers defeated the Saints 44-38 on Sunday.
Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera walks off the field following the team's victory over the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. The Panthers defeated the Saints 44-38 on Sunday.
Credit Jeff Siner / Charlotte Observer

NEW ORLEANS - Brandon Beane, the Carolina Panthers’ acting general manager, is standing next to the tunnel that leads to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome field. He wears a general manager quality pin-striped suit and brown shoes.

Marty Hurney, whom the Panthers fired as general manager in October, never dressed like that.

”Marty wasn’t interested in fashion,” Beane says.

Beane, 36, is. He also, one would suppose, is interested in becoming Carolina’s full-time general manager. But he won’t say it. A courteous no comment is all I get.

A Yahoo writer, a good reporter with good sources, Tweeted Sunday that there’s talk Brandon Beane will be Carolina’s general manager. (He’s not the first to imply this.)  He also Tweeted he’d heard Panthers head coach Ron Rivera will be retained.

Rivera might be retained. Beane could become general manager.

But how would anybody know unless they talked to Panthers owner Jerry Richardson or consultant Ernie Accorsi? Accorsi isn’t a gossip and I assure you Richardson hasn’t talked to anybody in the media.

There is, however, one way somebody could know. 

If Richardson has decided to hire Beane he almost certainly has decided to keep Rivera. Such a decision suggests Richardson likes the direction in which his team is moving. So why risk altering the chemistry by bringing in an outsider?

I don’t believe such a decision has been made.       

Last season, Rivera’s first, the Panthers won four more games than they did in 2010. After a compelling 44-38 victory against New Orleans Sunday, the Panthers have won one more game than they did in 2011.

Last season they won four of their final six games and finished 6-10. This season they won their final four games and finished 7-9.

Winning their last four games is impressive. It’s like winning college basketball’s NIT. Congratulations. Your game was televised by ESPN6. Here’s your trophy. Now get out of the way so we can watch the contenders play.

You can make a case for letting Rivera go. He’s good in December – 3-1 last season, 4-1 this season. But what about the other months? If Sunday’s victory is indicative of Carolina’s talent, why didn’t that talent manifest itself when games mattered more?

You also can make a case for retaining Rivera. After 10 games the Panthers were 2-8. But players neither abandoned their coach nor his philosophy, and Rivera didn’t abandon them. As the team improved, so did Rivera. He stopped coaching scared. He took reasonable chances. He believed, and his decisions proved it.

Also – and I know this doesn’t matter to some of you – Rivera is honorable and accountable. He accepts blame and defers credit. You want to believe in him. The Panthers couldn’t have a better representative. 

Whatever happens, Carolina has to entrust the football operation to a general manager. And how can the Panthers do that if they say: “We want you to run the team except we’re going to tell you who the coach is.”

If Richardson tells the general manager who will coach, what else will he tell him?

This is why I’ll be shocked if the Panthers make a move this week.  Even if Beane is a candidate, there have to be others. If the candidate works for one of the 12 teams still playing meaningful football, Carolina can’t court him until his season ends. They can’t court candidates from teams that didn’t make the playoffs until Monday.

The Panther with the longest tenure is Steve Smith, who on Sunday completed his 12th season. You know he has opinions. You know he cares who he works for. You know he won’t be shy about sharing them.

Smith is in a good mood and we talk for awhile and then I ask him who he thinks the next general manager and coach will be.

Smith smiles. And then he smiles more broadly. He smiles for five seconds, 10, more. And then we laugh. As no comments go, this one is pretty good.

After the game Rivera is more emotional than I have seen him. He loves what he does and he loves the man he works for and he loves the players who work for him. He doesn’t want to lose this not when, to him, it’s just getting good.

I ask what will happen.

”I will sit down with Mr. Richardson and we will evaluate the season,” says Rivera. “The process is going to begin when we get back to Charlotte. Like I said, Mr. Richardson has been fair and I appreciate the opportunity that he’s given me and we’ll see how things unfold.”

Later, Rivera leaves the locker room wearing a head coach quality blue suit and carrying a too-cool black fedora.

”My kids gave it to me for Christmas,” Rivera says proudly of the hat.

Rivera puts it on his head, gives it a little tilt and walks confidently across the Superdome’s artificial turf, to the team bus and whatever comes next.