- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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Watching Ron Rivera’s first news conference as coach of the Carolina Panthers was a lot like watching John Fox’s introduction back in 2002.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Although Fox’s time with the Panthers didn’t end well, his overall tenure was a success. Rivera’s can be even better if he learns some lessons from what went right and what went wrong for Fox.
“I’d like to be an aggressive, physical football team,’’ Rivera said Tuesday afternoon as he met with the media in Charlotte.
That was Fox’s message coming in and pretty much throughout his entire tenure. That style worked, especially in Fox’s early years. In those days, Fox built his team around his defensive line and the Panthers truly were an aggressive and physical team. They went to the Super Bowl in Fox’s second year and it wasn’t really until a trip to the NFC Championship Game in the 2005 season that Fox’s flaws started to show.
Back in the early years, Fox stuck to what he knew: defense. One of his first hires was Dan Henning as offensive coordinator -- Fox viewed that as a coup at the time. Early on, Fox trusted the veteran Henning with his offense and the Panthers won with ball control and the occasional big play.
Things began to fall apart in the 2006 season when the Panthers got too conservative on offense. Henning took the fall for that and was fired at the end of that season. In hindsight, Fox was the guy to blame. He insisted on sticking with his style even when it obviously wasn’t working. Fox brought in Jeff Davidson as the replacement and the Panthers haven’t had much of a passing game since.
That’s why I’m saying Rivera could end up being better than Fox. When Rivera uttered the words “balanced offense," I could almost hear fans in the Carolinas cheering.
I almost cheered when someone asked Rivera to describe himself for people who don’t know him.
“A listener, someone who understands,’’ Rivera said.
That’s a great thing because Fox refused to change or adapt and that's why he's gone. I’m certain general manager Marty Hurney, team president Danny Morrison and owner Jerry Richardson made it clear the Panthers must be much better and much more open minded when it comes to offense.
Rivera said he’s going to stick mostly with the defense and let the assistants he hires handle the offense.
“I’m looking for guys that are going to coach and teach," Rivera said.
That’s a good thing because the Carolina brain trust didn’t feel there was enough teaching or coaching going on at the end of Fox’s tenure. That was needed because the team had gone to a full-blown youth movement. You can bet that Rivera has already given some names of potential offensive coaches to Hurney, Morrison and Richardson. They probably wouldn’t have offered him the job if they didn’t like those names.
Ron Turner, Rob Chudzinski and Marc Trestman are coaches Rivera might target and that’s a good start. Rivera ran through his offensive roster and sounded very satisfied with the offensive line and the running backs. That’s usually as far as Fox’s eyes went on offense.
But Rivera kept going. He talked about the three tight ends -- Jeff King, Dante Rosario and Gary Barnidge -- and said he liked them all and the Panthers could upgrade in the draft or free agency. Rivera also praised young receivers Brandon LaFell and David Gettis. Then he saluted wide receiver Steve Smith's career and said he’d “love to visit with him and see how he’s doing."
That’s important. Smith might be the best player in franchise history. He’s been frustrated by the losing and the team's offensive struggles. Smith has not asked to be traded or released, but team officials have told him to think about his future. They’ve made it clear to him that he’s welcome back if he’s satisfied with the new direction of the team. If not, they’ll accommodate him and trade him.
Smith still has some good years left and Rivera can do himself a favor by winning over the receiver. But that might have to be done over time because Rivera must take care of some other challenges first.
“We need to see if there is a quarterback on this roster that can be that franchise guy that you need,’’ Rivera said.
In other words, Rivera and whoever he hires as his offensive coaches must decide if Jimmy Clausen can be a franchise quarterback. Fox never really gave Clausen a chance in his rookie season. He made Clausen spend much of training camp working behind Hunter Cantwell, who didn’t even make the team.
Fox only turned to Clausen after Matt Moore got off to a disastrous start. Fox benched Clausen twice after that and the offensive system made it impossible to tell if the rookie has any upside.
At the very least, Rivera made it sound like he’s at least open to giving Clausen a chance. The Panthers took a hit when Stanford’s Andrew Luck decided not to enter the draft. The Carolina brass realizes the franchise's hopes can’t be put entirely on Clausen, and it’s certain that another quarterback will be added through the draft or free agency.
That puts Rivera one up on Fox. He’s coming in with an open mind about the offense. He’s not coming in hell bent on using square pegs when you’ve got a bunch of round ones.