Carolina Panthers coaching moves: Was Ron Rivera scapegoating?

Wesley Hitt

Yesterday afternoon the organization fired three assistant coaches. One article places the blame squarely on the shoulders of Ron Rivera, retained by the Panthers this off-season.

On Saturday the news broke that the Carolina Panthers would be moving forward with Ron Rivera as their head coach. It was an announcement met with a mixed reaction. As many who wanted the team to stay on the trend that closed the season, there were a number of fans and analysts who believed change should have occurred. While Rivera and his coordinators maintained the status quo, there were ripples throughout the organization -- and yesterday three position coaches lost their jobs. Was this the case of Ron Rivera evaluating and making changes, or a man on his last rope supporting himself on the backs of fallen comrades?

Nobody inside the organization should have felt safe. Ron Rivera didn't know he would be asked to return, but given the Panthers didn't let position coaches and coordinators know they could apply for other jobs (something that happened in Jacksonville) it seemed more, and more likely Rivera would be back. When Marty Hurney was fired following a 1-5 start, Carolina's head coach spoke candidly about the need for the remaining ten games to be a litmus test on his ability as a head coach, and his position coaches.

Special teams coordinator Brian Murphy didn't get very far, fired two weeks before thanksgiving -- but the rest of Ron Rivera's staff got to finish out the year. A 6-4 run was enough to save most of them, but now running back coach John Settle, linebacker coach Warren Belin, and wide receivers coach Fred Graves are all gone, fired as Rivera's first moves following his return. Former Carolina Panthers' beat writer, now Pro Football Talk columnist Darin Gantt directed some harsh words at Rivera for throwing other under the bus:

Going into his third year with the Panthers, Ron Rivera has a 13-19 record.

His record of offering up those who might not necessarily be the problem is far more impressive. [...] Meanwhile, it appears that Teflon Ron and both his coordinators, Rob Chudzinski and Sean McDermott will return.

Understandably harsh for a lot of the issues that have plagued the organization. It should be noted that had Rivera been fired, and a new coach brought in -- it's unlikely any of the position coaches would have returned in 2013. Such is life for an NFL coach, rarely fair, and too often tied to the successes and failures of those above them.

Were Belin, Settle and Graves true scapegoats though, or under-achieving position coaches subject to Ron Rivera's ten-week evaluation?

Warren Belin inherited an immensely talented group of linebackers, but a unit who were struggling with injuries. Last season was mostly a wash due to the lockout, but in 2012 he had one primary goal: Teaching Luke Kuechly to be a successful outside linebacker. There was moderate success, but he was average at best. His pursuit skills from the outside weren't great, and his play recognition left a lot to be desired. It wasn't until he moved back to familiar waters, returning to middle linebacker that Luke Kuechly showed his dominance again. Was he coached? Obviously. Was he developed? I'm not so sure. Concurrently James Anderson regressed. More tackles were missed, he was too often out of position -- and this was an issue that plagued Anderson for the entire season.

The running backs are a more complex situation, because a lot of the Panthers' running failures rested on bad offensive line play, and poor play calling. However, looking at his history -- John Settle was a bad hire for what the Panthers were trying to do. Coming from a tradition of power, I-Formation running in Wisconsin, it made little sense to inject that running back coach into a team looking to use options, and read options as the base of their running attack. It goes beyond simply being Chud's fault, to being a complete breakdown from top to bottom. Marty Hurney signed two running backs to giant contracts, perfect for a run-first team in Settle's mold, however it flew in the face of Chudzinski's offensive principles, and no OC should change his game plan to accommodate contracts or position coaches. It's not that Settle was a bad coach, just a bad fit.

Finally there's Fred Graves -- wide receiver coach, and former mentor to Steve Smith. The WR coaching position in Carolina over the last decade has been a mess, and asking for Smitty's advice led to the hiring of Graves. Is he a good coach? Yes, and he's shown that over the years. However, this was a move that was made to keep Steve Smith happy, something the organization were willing to do at any cost. Brandon LaFell showed flashes this season, but the lack of development from the back-end receivers remains a huge problem, and so there was room for a change also.

If Ron Rivera is really looking for scapegoats, these are pretty small fries in the grand scheme of things. Teams fire position coaches year-in, year-out -- and it feels if Rivera truly wanted to blame someone else he would have offered up McDermott or Chudzinski; which would have moved the needle more, and done more for public perception. Only the most attentive of fans know who the team's position coaches are, and for this reason I'm inclined to believe it's more retooling, and less scapegoating.

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