CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper began to contemplate firing coach Ron Rivera a few weeks ago, after a home loss to a two-win Atlanta team followed by a meeting with reporters in which he said long-term mediocrity wouldn’t be tolerated.
On Tuesday, two days after a 29-21 home loss to a two-win Washington team extended Carolina’s losing streak to four, he pulled the trigger.
“There is a point where you have to try to elevate a whole organization, and without shaking the tree you can’t get any apples,” Tepper said from the conference room at Bank of America Stadium.
Tepper said the decision to fire Rivera now — instead of letting the organization’s winningest coach and a two-time NFL Coach of the Year finish the season — was made so that Tepper could move forward with finding a replacement without going behind Rivera’s back.
“I thought it was time,” Tepper said. “Why specifically now is I was informed of other teams doing different types of searches out there, and I’m not going to start a search and not tell Ron Rivera I’m starting a search. Too good of a man.”
Rivera told the team’s website on Tuesday night that his time in Carolina were “great years.”
“We did a lot,” Rivera told the site. “The people. We brought in good men, good coaches. We did things the right way.”
Tepper will use a search committee to find the next coach. He didn’t rule out a college coach, but he appears focused on a young, offense-minded NFL coordinator who is willing to use analytics in a way Rivera never would.
That could open the door for somebody such as Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman, 47, who was an offensive line assistant with Carolina from 1995 to 2001. Roman, behind the MVP-caliber play of dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson, has the No. 1 offense in the NFL.
“This is a modern NFL,” Tepper said. “There is a preference for offensive coordinators. That does not mean if you find somebody fantastic on the defensive side I won’t consider it.
“The NFL has made rules to lean to the offense. That’s why you have more people going that way.”
Tepper named secondary coach Perry Fewell as his interim head coach. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner will transition to special assistant to the head coach, and quarterbacks coach Scott Turner will serve as offensive coordinator.
Tepper didn’t rule out Fewell as a candidate to replace Rivera, but his background as a defensive coach doesn’t appear to fit the owner’s job description.
Tepper also made it clear that the promotion of Fewell was not because, as an African American coach, he fit the NFL’s “Rooney Rule” that requires owners to interview minority candidates for head coach positions.
“Perry is a general. He’s a commander. That’s why Perry is in that position,” Tepper said. “Rest assured, Perry Fewell is not in that spot because he’s African American. He’s in that spot because he’s the best man for the job — period.”
Tepper did not fire general manager Marty Hurney, calling him an outstanding college evaluator. But he plans to name an assistant general manager to focus on pro personnel evaluation and a vice president of football operations. Tepper said nothing to ensure that Hurney would remain with the organization long-term.
“We are going to take a comprehensive and thorough review of our football operation to make sure we are structured for long-term, sustained success,” Tepper said. “Our vision is to find the right mix of old-school discipline and toughness with modern and innovative processes.
Will Cain reacts to the firing of Ron Rivera and believes his departure will signal the end of Cam Newton’s tenure with the Panthers.
“We will consider a wide range of football executives to complement our current football staff. We all must recognize that this is the first step in a process, but we are committed to building and maintaining a championship culture for our team and our fans.”
As for what a new coach means for the future of quarterback Cam Newton, who is on injured reserve with a Lisfranc injury, Tepper couldn’t say.
The 2015 NFL MVP lost his eighth consecutive game before being shut down after a Week 2 home loss to Tampa Bay.
“Hopefully, Cam’s healthy,” Tepper said of Newton. “I frankly don’t know, and neither does Cam right now.”
Tepper believes the next coach will have good choices at quarterback. He said Newton’s $21.1 million cap figure in 2020, the final year of his contract, isn’t so big that it’s a detriment.
“We’re not weighed down by a $36 million-a-year mistake right now,” he said.
Newton, 30, wrote on his Instagram story that Rivera’s firing “hurt deep” and that he “will be forever grateful because of the impact [Rivera] had on my life.” He thanked Rivera for “giving me an opportunity” and “for believing in me.”
“I can go on and on but most importantly; thank you for allowing me to be me,” wrote Newton, whom the Panthers made the first pick of the 2011 draft.
Running back Christian McCaffrey, drafted eighth overall by the Panthers in 2017, also posted a tribute to Rivera on his Instagram, writing, “Tough day for Carolina. Thank you to the Coach who believed in me from day 1.
“You represent so much more than a football team. You represent what it means to be a leader and an example to everyone. I will forever be grateful to have played for you. #KeepPounding”
Rivera ended his nine-year tenure with a 76-63-1 regular-season record and a 3-4 postseason mark. Despite an NFL-best 15-1 2015 season and trip to the Super Bowl, he finished with only three winning seasons. The Panthers lost to the Denver Broncos in that Super Bowl.
Rivera had a 12-16 record the past two seasons after Tepper spent an NFL-record $2.275 billion to purchase the Panthers from longtime owner Jerry Richardson.
Rivera, who turns 58 in January, shouldn’t have trouble finding another job as a head coach or defensive coordinator. He took over the defensive playcalling late last season in an attempt to turn the defense around and continued in that role this season.
He is looked at leaguewide as one of the best defensive minds in the game.
Tepper said his final conversation with Rivera was “emotional.”
“Listen, I have great regards to Ron Rivera,” Tepper said. “He’s one of the finest guys in this game, period. That’s not bulls—.”
But ultimately, Tepper didn’t believe Rivera was the man to lead the Panthers (5-7) to the kind of long-term success he became accustomed to growing up in Pittsburgh and as a minority owner of the Steelers.
When Tepper says long-term, he doesn’t expect an overnight turnaround.
“If people believe or fans believe that I’m going to hire the messiah in here and bring you to the promised land in one year, I got a few guys they should meet,” Tepper said. “They can meet the Tooth Fairy, they can meet Santa Claus, I got a bridge in Brooklyn.
“I’m not talking one year. I’m talking about a standard that will be built and sustained … built and sustained.”