Carolina Panthers

Why Ron Rivera fired two defensive assistants, and what happens next for Panthers

Ron Rivera’s conversations with owner David Tepper

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera responds to a question about his conversations with team owner David Tepper and general manager Marty Hurney on Monday. Rivera earlier had released coaches Brady Hoke and Jeff Imamura of their duties.
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Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera responds to a question about his conversations with team owner David Tepper and general manager Marty Hurney on Monday. Rivera earlier had released coaches Brady Hoke and Jeff Imamura of their duties.

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera made a rare move on Monday morning with the in-season firing of first-year defensive line coach Brady Hoke and first-year secondary coach Jeff Imamura.

Rivera said Monday that he will also assume the responsibility of defensive playcalling for the rest of the season, a role that began on Sunday in Carolina’s 24-17 loss at Tampa Bay. The loss was the Panthers’ fourth straight, and fifth of six road games.

Defensive coordinator Eric Washington will remain in his position, Rivera said, but assume responsibility for the front seven (defensive line and linebackers). Rivera will also have a hand in the coaching of the back seven (linebackers and secondary), alongside his former Cal teammate and longtime Panthers assistant Richard Rodgers.

“Eric and I will collaborate on putting the defenses together each week as we prepare and get ready to play,” Rivera said.

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Carolina, which travels to Cleveland on Sunday, has the NFL’s 14th-ranked defense and has given up 126 points in the past four games, all losses. The Panthers finished the 2017 season as the No. 7-ranked defense.

Those losses, and a drop in the effectiveness of Carolina’s defense in general, prompted the firings and the redistribution of roles. It is just the second time in his eight years as the Panthers’ head coach that Rivera has fired an assistant during the season.

But there were signs a shakeup could be possible long before Sunday’s game.

Red flags

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Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Eric Washington holds his title, but his role has been reshaped following a staff shakeup on Monday that including the firing of two defensive assistants. Paul Sancya AP

A seamless transition into the 2018 season by the Panthers, in hindsight, might have been unrealistic.

The Panthers have had a new defensive coordinator each of the past three seasons — with Steve Wilks (Arizona) and Sean McDermott (Buffalo) parlaying success at Carolina into NFL head coaching jobs.

But Carolina didn’t have to also bring in a nearly entirely new corps of assistants until this season.

Three of Carolina’s four defensive assistant coaches — linebackers coach Steve Russ, Hoke and Washington — made their debuts in their respective jobs for the exhibition opener at Buffalo in August.

Rodgers had also been promoted, to assistant secondary coach alongside Imamura, after former in-house promotion Curtis Fuller resigned following an investigation into inappropriate behavior.

And there were certainly miscues, starting with the first exhibition, in Buffalo. Washington said after the game that coaches were struggling to find the proper headset channel so they could all communicate.

And then, in a regular-season loss to Atlanta in Week 2, the Panthers allowed their first 100-yard single-game rusher in 21 games, at the time the longest streak in the NFL.

In the weeks that followed, the Panthers remained inconsistent rushing the passer. And the secondary has been in a tailspin since a 52-21 loss in Pittsburgh. Carolina has given up 12 passing plays of 20-plus yards in its past four losses — for an average of nearly 40 yards per play.

Promoting Washington made sense last winter. The organization was facing instability in the wake of the Jerry Richardson scandal and then-pending sale of the team. Washington helped, because he has always had the respect of the staff and the locker room during his tenure.

But with so many new faces, it might have difficult to get everybody on the same page. Doing that and calling plays as a first-year defensive coordinator likely made Washington’s task tougher.

“It’s a steep curve,” Rivera allowed on Monday, “but that’s what we’re paid for.”

NFL teams are required to make coordinators available each week, and the Panthers have made Washington available every Monday this season. The team did not do so Monday after the news broke of the coaching changes.

Washington has long been an asset to the organization, spending seven seasons as the defensive line coach before his promotion. And it’s clear Rivera still considers him as such, despite reshaping his role.

“Eric is a professional,” Rivera said. “He’s done this for a long time, and he’s been very successful at it. As I said, his track record speaks for itself, especially dealing with the front seven and especially dealing with the front four.”

The question was raised during Panthers head coach Ron Rivera's Monday press conference if it had been decided prior to Sunday's loss to Tampa Bay that he would be more involved in the defensive play calling.

Sunday, Rivera was in apparent control of the defensive playcalling as early as halftime.

But what is less clear is how long he has shared at least part of that role. The team’s Monday release stated that he would be taking the playcalling over completely.

When and how?

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Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Eric Washington, right, has led an inconsistent group during his first season on the job. He has also had to manage two other first-time defensive assistants, one of whom was fired on Monday morning. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Rivera said he has worked with Washington like he has with past defensive coordinators, in that he has had input into the defensive playcalling and game plan all year.

But taking over the calls completely is unprecedented, at least on public record, during Rivera’s time in Carolina.

Veteran safety Mike Adams said Monday that it’s been his understanding that Rivera has weighed in on defensive playcalling all season, to various degrees.

“To my knowledge, I thought (Rivera and Washington) were working together all season,” Adams said. “I don’t know if it was 100 percent, 10 percent, 20 percent, I can’t give you those numbers. I thought they had been working together the whole time. But it’s nothing new or nothing shocking.”

Adams said he couldn’t speak as to what changes were implemented, if any, on Sunday, but that none of them was surprising to the players. He added that the team made halftime adjustments according to Rivera’s instruction. Carolina’s defense largely improved in the second half.

Rivera said he hopes being put “in the middle of everything as far as the defense is concerned” will help grow the defense in the team’s final four regular-season games.

“You know, I have a bit of experience — at playcalling, at putting defenses together,” Rivera reminded reporters during his news conference. “I think it’s an opportunity to work even closer with (Eric), to help him out as we go forward.

“You all have to remember your first time at doing something, you weren’t perfect. Somebody had to help you. And that’s really what I’m here for, is to help him as we go forward as a football team.”

Talking with the top ‘cat’

On Sunday, CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora released a report, citing anonymous sources, that said Carolina owner David Tepper was frustrated and “antsy” with the Panthers’ repeated losses and some of the in-game decisions made by the coaching staff. The report said Tepper was mulling “major changes” if the team didn’t get things turned around.

Rivera did not want to discuss the report after the loss on Sunday evening.

“As far as I’m concerned, unless Mr. Tepper puts his name on it, I think that everybody just needs to calm down and let what’s really being said — or let the truth come out,” Rivera said. “Again, if anybody has a question, I think they should ask Mr. Tepper. But I don’t think that’s fair to sit there and say, ‘sources say.’”

He then told reporters not to ask him questions about his job security, despite repeated attempts.

But Monday, Rivera indicated that, based on his relationship with and knowledge of Tepper, if the Panthers’ first-year owner were going to make a decision about Rivera’s future, he’d tell him so straight to his face — which Rivera indicated Tepper has not done.

“He’s very upfront, very (straight)forward,” Rivera said. “I’ve been very fortunate to have a good collaboration between him, myself and the general manager.”

Rivera said Tepper did not influence the decision to fire the defensive assistants, but that it was a collaborative process between Rivera, Tepper and general manager Marty Hurney.

“My conversation with Mr. Tepper after the game yesterday was about exactly the game,” Rivera said. “My conversation with him today (Monday) was really about what I was going to do, the direction we are going to head as a football team.

“Both Mr. Tepper and Marty were both aware and supportive of the decisions that I made.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071; @jourdanrodrigue
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