LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Lovie Smith empathizes with the plight of Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, the former Bears defensive coordinator, who appears to be on shaky ground after his team's 1-5 start culminating in the firing Monday of general manager Marty Hurney.
Asked how things are going Wednesday, Rivera said, "We've been better." But Smith expects better days to come for the Panthers, hopefully just not Sunday when they face the Bears at Soldier Field.
"We know that Ron and the rest of the staff is an excellent coaching staff with a lot of good players," Smith said. "And yet you go through some times like this. You just keep working on what you believe in, which Ron and their crew will do. We just hope they don't get it right this week. They'll be fine in time."
When ownership fired Hurney earlier in the week, Rivera indicated the move sent a message to him and the Carolina staff that nobody is on solid footing with regards to job security. Rivera considers the team's last 10 games to be an evaluation process of him, the coaching staff and players.
Hurney hired Rivera in 2011, and the Panthers have since won seven games under the coach who is in the second year of a four-year deal. After winning four of its last six games in Rivera's first season, Carolina entered 2012 with lofty expectations only to see the team descend into its current four-game skid.
"It's a tough situation to be in," said Chicago center Roberto Garza, who worked against a Rivera-led Bears defense during the coach's tenure as defensive coordinator 2004-2006. "We've all been there before. He's a great coach and a good friend. It's unfortunate what he's going through, but I think he's gonna have those guys ready to play. We know what kind of a coach he is."
That's why Smith stressed Wednesday it's too early to pass judgment on Rivera and the Panthers. Carolina averaged 25.4 points in 2011, but has put up more than 14 in just two games leading many to wonder whether quarterback Cam Newton's impressive rookie campaign was a fluke.
Asked why he's struggled thus far compared to 2011, Newton, who passed for 374 yards and a touchdown against the Bears last season in addition to running for a pair of TDs, said "that's the question that I don't know (the answer to)."
Smith, meanwhile, isn't counting out Newton or Rivera.
"Right now, we're six games into the season. During the course of any year, most of the time it's just not gonna be smooth sailing throughout," Smith said. "I think it's a little early to start trying to cast exactly what someone is and what a team is. What I see from Carolina, they've lost -- especially the last three games -- all have been close games."
The Panthers lost 30-28 to Atlanta on Sept. 30 on a Falcons field goal with five seconds remaining. The next week, Newton squandered two scoring opportunities late (including an incompletion to an open receiver from the 1) during a 16-12 loss against the Seattle Seahawks. The Panthers followed that with a 19-14 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on a Dan Bailey field goal with 3:25 left to play.
Four of Carolina's five losses have been decided by six points or fewer. The Panthers are also weathering a rash of injuries on defense.
"It's got to be a tough situation for him to be in," said Bears long snapper Patrick Mannelly, who often played golf with Rivera during the coach's tenure and considers him a friend. "Any time you're losing it's tough. But just knowing him, he'll be fine. He understands the business. He played nine years, and now he's a head coach. I think he'll fight through it and be alright."