When we see old black and white photos of Harry Houdini he appeared to be a rather short and slight fellow. Ron Rivera is big, stout, and tough. Houdini never played or coached in the NFL. Rivera won a Super Bowl as a player, and coached in one as an assistant. After eight job interviews for head coaching positions failed, number nine was the lucky charm for Rivera. He became the head man with the Panthers last year.
It is unclear whether Rivera has thought about P90X or the Atkins diet, but he certainly is trying his best to pull a Houdini and magically earn a third year as Carolina's head coach.
Rivera did not get off to a good start with the Panthers, but he had excuses. He inherited a team that went 2-14 in 2010, had an unconventional offseason because of the lockout, and rookie quarterback Cam Newton was learning a new system and new league. After starting the year 2-8 Carolina rallied to finish 6-10. With things getting better as the year moved along optimism was high in Charlotte.
When the Panthers again began this year 2-8 it seemed like a foregone conclusion Rivera would be seeking employment elsewhere at the end of the season. But once again Carolina got off the deck and has made a meaningless run towards respectability. Because of inspired play by Newton, and a dramatically improved defense, the Panthers have won four times in the last five weeks with their only loss at Kansas City December 2. Here lies the problem.
Respectable teams cannot lose to Kansas City. Wins when the season has already been lost are negated by the team playing without any real pressure. The Panthers have beaten a total of either two or three playoff teams in two seasons depending upon whether the Redskins make it this year. And most of all, Carolina continues to be awful in close games. Since Rivera took over the Panthers are 1-12 in games decided by seven points or less.
Earlier this season Carolina General Manager Marty Hurney was fired. The architect of a team that went to the Super Bowl once, and NFC Championship game twice was scapegoated for a bad start. Hurney drafted Newton, last year's offensive rookie of the year, and Luke Kuechly, among the best defensive rookies this season. If Marty Hurney, and his accomplishments were not significant enough to keep him employed, is beating San Diego and Oakland really enough to justify Rivera sticking around? We should find out during the next week whether Rivera has perfected Houdini's famous buried alive stunt.