CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Former Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson showed great patience when he stuck with coach Ron Rivera after a 1-3 start in 2013 following consecutive losing seasons.
It paid off. The Panthers went 12-4 that season to start a string of three straight NFC South titles and a trip to the Super Bowl in 2015 with an NFL-best 15-1 record.
It was the right move at the time.
But will new owner David Tepper show the same patience if the current team continues to free-fall?
The Panthers are 6-5 following their third straight setback, a 30-27 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Three of their final five games are on the road, where they are 1-4 this season. Two are against the New Orleans Saints, who at 10-1 appear unbeatable.
Say the Panthers finish no better than 8-8 and miss the playoffs. That would mean Rivera, despite being a two-time NFL Coach of the Year (2013, ’15) would have only three winning seasons in eight. It would mean he hasn’t put together consecutive winning seasons, something no Carolina coach has done since the franchise began playing in 1995.
Would Tepper be as patient as Richardson was five years ago?
He should be. Rivera kept the organization together under some of the most strenuous times in franchise history, from Greg Hardy’s domestic violence case in 2014 to accusations that Richardson was involved in sexual and racial workplace misconduct, which ultimately led to his selling the team.
Rivera led the team to three straight NFC South titles, something that hadn’t been done before in the division.
He has the respect and loyalty of his players.
But is Tepper that patient?
He’s from Pittsburgh, where he grew up watching the Steelers win six Super Bowls. In 2009, he became a minority owner in his hometown team.
He’s used to winning. Consistently.
Remember what the hedge fund billionaire, who paid an NFL-record $2.275 billion to purchase the Panthers, said the day league owners unanimously approved him? Let me remind you. He said his first priority was to win.
He also said that was his second priority.
And his third.
Tepper reminded folks of that before a prime-time disaster at Pittsburgh that started this skid when asked why he chose to sign Eric Reid when no other owner in the NFL had been willing to do so after Reid filed a collusion grievance against the league.
Tepper, as several owners said this year, is not afraid to make tough decisions. This is a man who paid more than $40 million for the summer getaway of a former boss who fired him and then tore it down to build a much larger mansion.
Whether the Panthers need to be torn down remains to be seen. The offense is heading in the right direction. Quarterback Cam Newton, who completed 85 percent of his passes on Sunday, is playing at a high level.
Newton’s 10th straight game of completing at least 60 percent of his passes and at least two touchdowns has been bettered by only two players in NFL history.
Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers had streaks of 12 straight.
Running back Christian McCaffrey had a franchise-record 237 all-purpose yards. By topping 100 yards rushing and receiving with a touchdown in each category, he did something no player had done since Arian Foster in 2011.
But the defense is struggling and getting old in key spots. Future Hall of Fame defensive end Julius Peppers is 38 and likely playing his last season. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis is 34 and in the last year of his contract even though he says he’d like to play one more season.
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Strong safety Mike Adams is 37 and in the last year of his contract.
Peppers said the defense is not playing well together. He admitted there are lapses in communication. That’s quite a comment from one of the leaders who was supposed to make this another top-10 unit.
This is not good for Rivera, considered a defensive guru, since the Panthers went all-in on defense by re-signing Peppers and adding Reid.
That could put general manager Marty Hurney on the hot seat as well if this, as cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said, “funk” doesn’t end.
So a lot of jobs might be riding on these next five weeks, from coaches to players.
Perhaps the Panthers can turn things around. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was quick to remind the 2014 team didn’t win for two months before winning its final four games to make the playoffs.
He was quick to credit Rivera for staying calm in a dire situation, for holding things together to make that run possible.
A lot can change over the next few weeks if the Panthers can find a way to win at Tampa Bay and Cleveland. Seattle (6-5) has tough games left against Minnesota and Kansas City, though both are at home.
The Vikings and Packers, also in the wild-card hunt, have tough roads ahead as well, particularly Minnesota.
“Everybody is looking at the calendar and saying, ‘We can beat this team. We can beat that team. We play them at home,'” Newton said. “We need one win and we can start with that.
“We have a lot of capabilities and a lot of potential, but I’ve said it before, potential has never did us nothing.”
Whether Tepper sees that potential after this season might play a role in how patient he’s willing to be.
That’s a big unknown.