Riverboat ring your bell

Published 2:23 pm Friday, December 6, 2019

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I thought about those words in the headline – lyrics from the theme song to the 60’s TV Western ‘Maverick’ – when I got word of NFL Carolina Panthers football coach Ron Rivera getting fired on Tuesday.

Rivera earned the nickname ‘Riverboat Ron’ for his habit of gambling by going for it on fourth-down, and doing it well before analytics became the craze in this sport.

But for now – temporarily, I hope – the gambles are over.

Rivera finishes his career in Charlotte with a record of 76-63-1 in the regular season and 3-4 in the post-season, including one trip to the Super Bowl.

The Panthers were Rivera’s eighth try at securing an NFL head coaching job. When former owner Jerry Richardson gave him his big break, he became the only Latino coach in pro football (and leaves as one of just four minority head coaches in the NFL, period). He came from good coaching stock: Super Bowl winner with the ’85 Chicago Bears, and 14 years toiling as an assistant coach and later coordinator.

There were times I thought he was an outlier in Charlotte. This huge Californian deep in Dixie; learning how to say y’all at his press conferences. But when his Queen City home nearly burned down two years ago, along came this huge outpouring of love and appreciation.

Like his house, Rivera was a survivor. First, when former owner Jerry Richardson wanted to fire him in 2012; three years before he would coach quarterback Cam Newton to an NFL MVP Award, linebacker Luke Kuechly to a Defensive MVP Award, lead the team to a Super Bowl with a 15-1 regular season, and twice be named NFL Coach of the Year. That’s seven years longer than what was supposed to be his coaching ‘death sentence’.

Truth: I wanted him gone in 2014 when the team started 3-8-1, but that year they not only bulled their way to the playoffs, but that was when they won one of their three NFC South division titles.

Sad as this parting seems now, yes, it was time for Rivera to go. The team had gone flat too often since the last of those three titles and their run to Super Bowl 50 in 2015. In the 60 games since they got steamrolled by Denver, the Panthers have gone 29-31. David Tepper came in, paid two-and-a-quarter billion dollars for the franchise, and then has to watch them go 12-16 in the 28 games since. Maybe some will see now what he meant a couple of weeks ago about not tolerating mediocrity. A parting like this was necessary – hard, but necessary.

Some of Rivera’s demise will certainly fall – fairly or not – at the feet of quarterback Cam Newton, who finally announced mid-week that he is scheduling foot surgery for the end of the year instead of waiting until March or April like he had been for previous body repairs for his other maladies.

Newton-wise, this franchise is at a crossroads. Moving the former number-one pick could bring some draft assets in return while saving the team more than $19 million in salary cap space.

If Newton stays and it doesn’t work out, he can leave in free agency in 2021 without Carolina owing him one dime. As for Kyle Allen, who’s done more than yeoman work this season as his replacement, just ask New Orleans with Teddy Bridgewater, the Colts with Jacoby Brissett, and even Jacksonville with Gardner Minshew, if having a solid, reliable backup pays off.

In terms of what the team would do with potential assets, that really depends on who the General Manager is, making current GM Marty Hurley’s future with the team as curious as Newton’s. Because of so many 2019 injuries, it’d help to shore up the offensive line before trying to find a quarterback, but fans are also growing weary of mediocrity and another 8-8 season would be a killer. If the Panthers decide to part ways with Newton, they better have an answer, and fast.

Hmmm!?! Are you heeding any of this Mr. Tepper? Better count your chips on the table, because who’s the gambler, now?

 Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.