NFC South: Ron Rivera

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SEATTLE -- Cam Newton didn't have to look far on Saturday night to see what a franchise quarterback looks like.

He was wearing No. 3 for the Seattle Seahawks.

Russell Wilson stepped up on the big stage once again, completing all eight of his third-down pass attempts -- three of them for touchdowns -- in a 31-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers that sent the defending Super Bowl champions back to the NFC Championship Game.

Newton, who celebrates big moments with his patented "Superman" move, looked human.

His first-quarter fumble led to Seattle's first touchdown. He took a third-quarter sack in Seattle territory that derailed a drive with Carolina trailing only 14-10.

Then came his biggest mistake, a fourth-quarter interception that safety Kam Chancellor returned 90 yards for a touchdown, registering what locals called a "Kam Quake" on the seismograph.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton, Cliff Avril
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCam Newton is 1-2 in the playoffs, with four interceptions and a passer rating of 79.5 in the two losses. His fourth-quarter interception on Saturday was returned 90 yards for a score.
On a night when Newton needed to create a "Cam Quake" for the Panthers to keep their improbable playoff run alive, he couldn't cause a rumble.

Newton wasn't the only Panther to make mistakes during the loss, but as he said afterward, "At the end of the day, I'm the quarterback and I have the last say."

The Panthers have shown the past two seasons they have a defense that can win games. That defense held its own in the first half Saturday, limiting Seattle -- which led the NFL in rushing this season -- to 21 yards on the ground.

What the Panthers haven't shown is they can be a Super Bowl contender with Newton. He is 1-2 in the playoffs, with four interceptions and a passer rating of 79.5 in the two losses.

To win playoff games, particularly when you're playing a top defense, you have to be special. Wilson was, with a passer rating of 149.2 against a Carolina defense that was allowing an average of just more than 11 points in its previous five games.

And he was beyond special on third down.

"That's a good way to win games," Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly said of Wilson's third-down numbers. "Third down, that's a money down."

Wilson, 26, will get his money. There were reports early in the day that the third-year player was in line to become the highest-paid quarterback in the league after the season.

If it happens, he's worth every penny.

Newton, 25, has yet to prove worthy of being more than a middle-of-the-road quarterback. Despite going 16-13-1 with trips to the playoffs the past two seasons, his performance on Saturday will once again raise questions about whether he deserves franchise-quarterback money -- likely more than $20 million per season.

The Panthers don't have to be in a hurry to re-sign him. Newton is tied up through the 2015 season, and the team can use the franchise tag in 2016 if necessary.

Carolina also can't afford not to re-sign Newton. As inconsistent as he has been at times, the organization is in much better shape at quarterback than half the teams in the league.

Just ask the Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals.

Newton said the team will grow and mature from this game. He said he will grow and mature from it.

His teammates still believe in him.

"Cam is a heck of a player," wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. "He's going to win a lot of games in this league and he's going to win championships."

To do that Newton will have to find a way to excel against top defenses such as Seattle's in the playoffs. He'll have to find the way to make big plays with his arm when it counts, as Wilson did on this cool, misty night.

"Unfortunately, turnovers and missed opportunities," coach Ron Rivera said when asked about the difference between the two teams.

Newton had two interceptions. He should have had four, maybe five.

The fumble was a read-option on which he could hand off to Jonathan Stewart or pull the ball out and pass. Newton pulled the ball out when Seattle defenders got to Stewart too fast.

"I did a bad job of protecting the football," Newton said. "When you're playing a good defense, you've just got to take what they give you."

Newton didn't take. He gave.

"A lot of times I was overlooking the play that needed to be made, instead trying to make a bigger play," Newton said.

Wilson gave his team a chance to win by making plays when he had to. Understanding when the Panthers were blitzing, he threw first-half touchdowns against rookie safety Tre Boston and rookie cornerback Bené Benwikere when Carolina was in man coverage.

Wilson played smart. He made the big plays.

That's why he's 4-0 against the Panthers and Newton.

"I think he's special," Rivera said. "All the young man has done is win."

Rivera believes Newton is special as well. But is he special enough to warrant a huge contract? Special enough to take Carolina to the next level?

Neither Rivera nor Newton had to look far to see what it takes.

He was wearing No. 3 for Seattle.
METAIRIE, La. – Sean Payton didn't agree with the notion that the New Orleans Saints were actively trying to run up the score late in their 31-13 victory over the Carolina Panthers last year – as coach Ron Rivera and linebacker Thomas Davis both suggested on Thursday.

Payton
Payton
But Payton stressed that the Saints don't apologize for continuing to try and move the football late in games, knowing how quickly comebacks can occur in the NFL.

"Listen, I’ve read some of it. I think that, honestly, I really can’t look at situations where I felt like [it happened],” Payton said. “I mean, what's that score? In our league, what is it? I've seen a 28-point lead turn into a loss when I was at New York in the wild-card game at San Francisco (actually 24 points following the 2004 season).

“And so, you’re wanting to function with your guys in there. Now, sometimes that might mean running the ball and sometimes that might mean throwing the football. But I can’t ever recall just looking at something saying, ‘Well, it’s a division rival or something and we want to …’ We're not in the business of doing that. We're in the business of being smart, obviously our players being healthy, all those things. And so it's too important. ...

"Each scenario’s different. But we're trying to move the football. And that's something we're not apologizing for. And yet, I think each game is different. You know, paying attention to the game and how it's unfolding."

It’s unclear what exactly got the Panthers so riled up about last year’s game. The Saints were leading 24-6 when they took over possession with 13:38 remaining – which seems way too early to expect them to run out the clock. The Saints went on an eight-play touchdown drive to increase their lead to 31-6.

Then after Carolina closed within 31-13, the Saints took over with 5:14 remaining. After running for zero yards on first down, quarterback Drew Brees was sacked on second down. After a delay of game penalty, Brees threw a dump-off pass on third-and-24. Perhaps that’s the series that bothered the Panthers.

If the Saints needed proof of why it’s dangerous to let up, they got it last week at Pittsburgh. The Saints were leading 35-16 late in the fourth quarter before the Steelers scored 16 points in the final 2:34 to close the gap to 35-32.

Panthers vs. Buccaneers preview

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Cam Newton and Gerald McCoyDale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsCam Newton's sore ribs would prefer not to have any close encounters with Gerald McCoy.
If there's anything certain about the NFC South, it's uncertainty.

Since the division came into existence in 2002, no team has claimed the championship in back-to-back years. Worst-to-first finishes have been common, and no team has been able to consistently dominate.

That's why Sunday's season opener between the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers is so significant. The Panthers won the division last year, and the Bucs finished last at 4-12. But this is a new year, and history has shown that anything is possible in the NFC South.

Panthers reporter David Newton and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas take a look at the matchup.

Yasinskas: David, much has been made of the release of wide receiver Steve Smith, who I think was the best player in franchise history. I know Smith's age was a concern. But can any of the new wide receivers step up and match his production?

Newton: You think Smith was the best player in franchise history? I truly believe he is, although he probably would have a hard time believing me after what I'm about to say: The Panthers are better at wide receiver today than they were this time a year ago.

It's nothing against Smith, but he's 35 and admittedly not a true No. 1 receiver anymore. First-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin is. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, he is the big target quarterback Cam Newton hasn't had. Benjamin is deceptively fast, too. But the biggest thing is he makes plays, whether it's over the middle in traffic or on the outside. If teams double-cover him, that will open things up for tight ends Greg Olsen and Ed Dickson in the middle. It also will open coverage on Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, a pair of veterans I believe to be more dependable than Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. were last year. If the Bucs choose to single-cover Benjamin, Newton will look for him often. I know rookie receivers tend to struggle, but this one has a special feel.

The bigger worry for Carolina is its rebuilt offensive line. The Bucs added some talent around defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. How big of a problem will that be for the Panthers?

Yasinskas: That should be a big concern for the Panthers. McCoy might be the best defensive tackle in the game, and the Bucs have worked hard to improve his supporting cast. They went out and signed tackle Clinton McDonald and end Michael Johnson to surround McCoy with some other players who can get after the quarterback. The guy who isn't getting a lot of attention but is worth keeping an eye on is Adrian Clayborn. He's a 2011 first-round draft pick who hasn't shown a lot so far, but the Bucs believe the new scheme will help them get more out of Clayborn.

Jordan Gross' retirement had to hurt Carolina. How good is this offensive line without him?

Newton: Athletically, it might be better. And in time, it might be better in terms of productivity. What it lacks is time together -- and Gross' leadership.

Byron Bell was considered average to perhaps slightly better than average at right tackle, but the Panthers believe because he is naturally left-handed he's better off on the left side. He's still susceptible to the bull rush from what I saw in the preseason, but he's every bit as strong and athletic as Gross. Amini Silatolu began last season as the starting left guard before suffering a season-ending knee injury. So he's solid.

It's the right side the Bucs -- particularly McCoy -- might be able to take advantage of. As good as rookie Trai Turner has looked at right guard, he just turned 21 and he missed the last two preseason games with a groin injury. The good news is he has Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil next to him. Nate Chandler, a former defensive lineman who wound up the starter at right guard last season, has moved out to right tackle after losing the left tackle battle. Again, he has great athleticism. He just needs time at the position.

How much different will the Bucs look under Lovie Smith than they did a year ago?

Yasinskas: The Bucs will look dramatically different -- and that's a good thing from their perspective. Many players were miserable under former coach Greg Schiano, and they tired of his rigid ways. Smith brings a fresh start, and the players are delighted with him and his schemes. The Bucs are going back to the Tampa 2 defense that was famous in the Tony Dungy years, and their offense will have a faster tempo. More importantly, Smith has brought a new culture to the Bucs. Players are having fun again.

Everyone in Tampa is curious about Newton's rib injury. Is he healthy enough to be the athletic quarterback we've all come to know?

Newton: The ribs are sore, and that isn't likely to change by Sunday. But Newton has thrown the ball well in practice, and his range of motion is good. He's tougher than most give him credit for being. To never have missed a start despite being hit twice as many times as any other quarterback over the past three seasons really is remarkable.

Coach Ron Rivera says he doesn't plan to change the game plan because of the injury, and that includes the read-option. But do I expect Newton to run 11 times, as he did at Tampa last season? I'd be stunned. The Panthers don't need Newton taking unnecessary hits. Having said that, if there is a play to be made, Newton won't hesitate to use his legs. He insists that he'll continue to dive headfirst instead of sliding, too. But I expect Newton to stay in the pocket as much as possible and throw the ball to Benjamin as often as he's open. Those two have quickly developed a bond.

What about Josh McCown, who spent two years on the Carolina bench? Is he really the answer at quarterback to make the Bucs a playoff contender?

Yasinskas: McCown is a great story. He has spent most of his career as a backup, but the Bucs are giving him the chance to be a starter. McCown played extremely well last season when Bears starter Jay Cutler was hurt, and he has history with Smith from their time together in Chicago. But is McCown capable of leading a team to the playoffs? I honestly don't know. I think he needs a lot of help from the defense and the running game. If he gets that, McCown could be effective as a passer.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The $1.3 million advance the Carolina Panthers agreed to pay Greg Hardy to attend the entire offseason workout program hasn't been impacted -- so far -- by the defensive end's absence due to legal issues, according to a source.

Hardy
Hardy
Hardy was arrested Tuesday on charges of domestic violence against Nicole Holder, a 24-year-old woman with whom he has had a relationship with since September. He spent Tuesday night in jail and wasn't released until midday Wednesday.

At that point, Hardy and agent Drew Rosenhaus arrived at Bank of America Stadium to meet with team officials.

Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who was at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Thursday preparing to be the honorary pace car driver for Saturday night's Sprint All-Star race, told the Charlotte Observer Hardy had not been at workouts this week.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera declined to discuss Hardy during Friday's rookie minicamp, but he did note that organized team activities are voluntary. They won't become mandatory until the first week in June.

The Panthers apparently are willing to work with Hardy on his guarantee -- a tenth of the $13.1 million Hardy was guaranteed when Carolina put the franchise tag on him -- while he gets his legal issues in order. A year ago, Hardy lost $100,000 in salary for not participating in at least 90 percent of the team's offseason workout programs in 2012 and 2013.

Nobody has said this, but I would suspect Hardy will attend most -- if not all -- of the mandatory sessions, including a June 17-19 minicamp. His next court date is set for June 27, and the Panthers probably don't want his first appearance at a practice to be in training camp.

"There are allegations that he has to deal with," Gettleman said in a brief comment on Hardy. "It's in the legal system and we are concerned for all parties."
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Steve Smith who?

Getting Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin with the 28th pick of Thursday's NFL draft begins the healing process for a Carolina Panthers' fan base mourning the release of its all-time leading receiver.

It also is the beginning of redemption for general manager Dave Gettleman, chastised when he let Smith go in March and subsequently allowed the team's next three wide receivers to sign with other organizations as free agents.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesKelvin Benjamin's size and final season at Florida State, capped with his title-winning touchdown catch against Auburn, were too much for the Panthers to resist.
"I'm sure Cam is not mad at me now," Gettleman said joking in reference to quarterback Cam Newton.

No, Newton wasn't upset with Gettleman for letting his entire wide receiving corps go. At least he didn't tell Gettleman that. But Newton has to be happy to have a big target like Benjamin.

"You can't coach 6-5, 240," Gettleman said repeatedly during his post-first-round news conference. "He has a lot of upside."

Benjamin has so much upside that he could become a legitimate No. 1 receiver for a team that doesn't have one, and according to head coach Ron Rivera doesn't really need one.

Gettleman knew this was a good year for wide receivers when he let Smith & Co. go. He didn't know how many of those receivers would grade out to be first-rounders, but he had no doubts about Benjamin after having him in for a workout.

Gettleman also had a gut feeling that Benjamin would be there at No. 28 even though many mock drafts didn't.

When he was, it didn't take Gettleman long to make the pick -- just as it didn't take him long a year ago to select defensive tackle Star Lotulelei at No. 14.

"He was the highest-rated guy on our board," Gettleman said of Benjamin. "And again, like last year, value. We got fortunate."

Many of the so-called draft experts had Benjamin as a potential second-round pick, perhaps a project because he had only one productive season at FSU.

But that production (54 catches for 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns) was enough to sell the Panthers. Gettleman in particularly was impressed with what Benjamin did in the final four games, catching 21 passes for an average of 21.3 yards per catch with eight touchdowns.

One of those touchdowns was the BCS title-winner over Auburn, the team Newton led to the national championship at the end of the 2010 season, which is sure to come up in conversation.

But it wasn't so much that Benjamin caught the game-winner. It's that he caught it when everyone in the stadium knew he was going to be the target.

The Panthers needed to replace a clutch player in Smith. In Benjamin, they got clutch.

"He said he didn't want to let that quarterback down," Rivera said. "I love that confidence."

Unlike the flamboyant Smith's, it is a quiet confidence. Benjamin isn't an in-your-face player. He is humble, so much so that he opted to stay in Florida with his parents for the draft instead of going to Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

That was something else that made him attractive to Carolina, which is trying to build an organization around teamwork and not egos. Smith, in case you never noticed, had a big ego.

"He's a different young man," Rivera said of Benjamin. "He's been very humble with us through this process. All the coaches said that."

Benjamin also is a big Newton fan.

"That's my favorite man," he said by phone. "I always dreamed of coming there and playing with Cam, coming and contributing to the organization."

Benjamin will give the Panthers more than a threat at receiver. He'll provide a big blocker who can open room for Newton and the Carolina backs down field.

He likes to block. He wants to block.

His presence also won't allow teams to stack eight in the box to stop the run, which will enable the Panthers to do more with its bread-and-butter game.

This was a win for a Carolina team that has done nothing but lose in the wide receiver department since it lost to San Francisco in the divisional round of the playoffs.

This was the true beginning of the post-Smith era.
Ron RiveraMichael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty ImagesRon Rivera has an open mind on accepting advice -- even if it comes from a NASCAR crew chief.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera began the offseason by spending several hours picking the brain of the most successful coach in professional team sports over the past 10 years.

Not Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots.

Not Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.

Not Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Chad Knaus.

Yes, the crew chief for six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

Don't laugh. It's Rivera's willingness to learn from the best, even one from a world as different as NASCAR is to the NFL, that gives the Panthers a chance in 2014 despite many concerns over their offseason moves.

Knaus actually reached out to the Panthers first, cold-calling the NFC South champions to see if he could spend time with Rivera and his staff.

Rivera, the NFL's reigning coach of the year, was just as interested in learning how Knaus kept his team on top with six titles and 10 straight trips to the Chase, NASCAR's version of the playoffs.

"One of the things we're trying to figure out is, how do we sustain the success?" Rivera said. "Listening to him talk about the way they review each year and how they try to find these next-level things, that was pretty impressive."

One of the things that was most impressive about Rivera last season was his willingness to adapt. He went from being one of the most conservative coaches in the NFL on fourth-and-1 to one of the most aggressive, earning the nickname "Riverboat Ron" because he gambled so often on short-yardage plays.

The confidence that instilled in players played a big role in the team's turnaround from a 1-3 start to a 12-4 record.

Rivera also wasn't afraid to take chances with his lineup. If a player wasn't performing, he'd go to the next man regardless of seniority. There were times in key situations when the league's second-ranked defense had six rookies on the field.

It's why Rivera is not so worried about the upheaval at wide receiver that has many questioning the organization's sanity.

Rivera also found a way to get individual players with egos to become teammates.

"It's the same stuff we always try to push with the 48 car," Knaus said, referring to Johnson's Chevrolet.

Listening to the two talk about how their worlds are more alike than different helped me better understand what some might call the madness behind Carolina's free-agency plan.

It made me better understand that sometimes you have to take a step back to take a step forward.

Knaus did it in 2010. Late in the eighth race of NASCAR's 10-race playoff, tired of seeing costly mistakes on pit road, he swapped out his entire seven-man pit crew in favor of the one used by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.

[+] EnlargeChad Knaus
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesHendrick Motorsports crew chief Chad Knaus has impressed Ron Rivera by sharing with the Panthers coach some of the successes and pitfalls of managing a championship team.
It was unprecedented.

Johnson went from a 33-point deficit in the standings to his fifth straight title.

Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman took a similar gamble this offseason when they released Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, and let their next three most productive wide receivers go to other teams in free agency.

The Panthers took the approach that status quo was not good enough. When you consider Carolina averaged 12.7 points in its seven games against teams with winning records in 2013, and that its wide receivers contributed slightly less than 10 catches a game all season, there was room for improvement.

Whether it will work out as well for Rivera as it did for Knaus remains to be seen.

The Panthers, who debuted in 1995, have had only five winning seasons and none back-to-back, so they have that working against them. That it's difficult to maintain consistency in the NFL in general makes it even tougher.

Half of the 32 teams have failed to post consecutive winning seasons over the past five seasons. Six others have done it only once during that span.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the 20 teams that went 12-4 over the past 10 years averaged 9.95 wins the following season. So repeating last year's accomplishment would have been hard, even without any change.

"The one thing he said was don't expect to start up here [Rivera points high]. You go down here and get better here and go to the top," Rivera says of Knaus' advice. "That was probably one of the more helpful parts of our conversation."

Talking about how people fit onto a roster also was helpful in a way Rivera never imagined.

"This guy may jack the car up a 10th of a second faster, but he doesn't work as well together with others," Rivera said, "while this guy may be a 10th of a second slower, yet he works well with everybody. We're the same way. It's about, 'How does this guy fit in the locker room?'"

Smith's name didn't come up but you can connect the dots, with all the rumblings about concerns the 34-year-old could be a distraction in the locker room.

A key to Knaus' success is fear. He always operates under the fear of not winning races and not being a champion.

He also operates under the theory that nobody is above learning from others. Rivera is the same way. He sought out former NFL coaches John Madden and Mike Ditka for advice last year. He taped those conversations and then transcribed them into notes, just like he did his talk with Knaus.

Then he acted on them.

Rivera said he can learn from Knaus' ability to put blinders on and block out distractions. Knaus admitted he can learn from Rivera's ability to "manage guys on a personal level." He has even adopted Rivera's standard comment that "you can delegate authority, but you cannot delegate the standard."

Both strive for the same thing -- winning consistently. And they both have the key parts in place to make that happen.

For the 48 team, it's a core of Knaus, Johnson and car chief Ron Malec. For the Carolina team, it's a core of quarterback Cam Newton, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and a coaching staff that remains unchanged.

The rest is a matter of filling in the pieces. Knaus has done that with NFL combine-like tryouts to get the best pit crew members available. He even adopted a depth chart, unheard of in NASCAR until three years ago.

Rivera has a quarterback on the verge of becoming one of the league's elite and the core of the league's second-ranked defense that should keep Carolina in most games.

So for all the woe-is-me over the losses at wide receiver, the key parts remain in place.

And then there's the core philosophy.

"The more I talk to people in the military, in other sports, people who are successful in other fields, the formula isn't that different for any environment," Knaus said. "It's all about teamwork, communication. It's how you approach the day.

"Ron has that."

If he can build on it, the Panthers have a chance to maintain a success level that Knaus already has attained.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera doesn't have any great personal memories from his playing days against former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly.

As an outside linebacker for the Chicago Bears, Rivera had only five tackles and no sacks in two games against Kelly during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

But like many who are pulling for the Hall of Fame quarterback as he battles oral cancer, Rivera remembers how tough Kelly was.

"A very tough guy,'' Rivera said last week at the NFL owners meeting in Orlando, Fla. "To see a guy get hit, get knocked down and get back up is always impressive. In my era -- shoot, it sounds like I'm old now -- but in my era you looked at certain guys that had that swagger about them.

"John Elway used to get knocked down, get up, straighten up his head and he'd walk back to the huddle. Jim Kelly, I can remember the same thing watching him in those [four] Super Bowls. ... You never let 'em see you're hurt.''

Rivera knows Kelly, 54, is hurting now. He hopes the toughness Kelly showed as a player gets him through the cancer.

Hearing of Kelly's illness also is a reminder that there are many from his playing days (1984-1992) that are going through medical issues, including former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon.

McMahon admitted last year he was going through early stages of dementia believed to be the result of head trauma suffered during his career.

"We're now at an age, I'm now at that age, guys that I played with are getting ill,'' said Rivera, 52. "Guys that I played with are getting hip replacements, knee replacements, shoulder replacements ... I don't want to say it's scary, but it is.

"So when you see a guy like Jim Kelly [and] Jim McMahon struggle with health issues, it's a scary thing.''
As badly as the Carolina Panthers need help at wide receiver, as much concern as there is over Wednesday's ankle surgery on quarterback Cam Newton, the Panthers have other needs that they continue to address.

Cornerback is one.

According to a media report out of New York, Giants free agent cornerback Terrell Thomas visited the Panthers on Tuesday.

Thomas became expendable in New York when the team signed Walter Thurmond of the Seattle Seahawks and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie of Denver.

He primarily is a slot corner. The Panthers lost their starter there when Captain Munnerlyn signed with the Minnesota Vikings.

Beyond being familiar to Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman, who was with the Giants before last season, Thomas has a connection to Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis.

Last season, Thomas returned to play for the first time after recovering from surgery to repair this third torn ACL. He missed the 2011 and 2012 season with ACL tears. He suffered the same injury in college at Southern Cal.

Two years ago, Davis became the first known player to tear his ACL three times and return to an NFL field. He had a career year this past season with 123 tackles and four sacks.

Thomas, 29, played in 16 games this past season, recording 67 tackles, an interception and a sack. He had 101 tackles and five interceptions in 2010 for the Giants.

The Panthers also have talked about bringing in San Diego free agent cornerback , according to a source. Cason played under Carolina coach Ron Rivera when Rivera was the defensive coordinator with the Chargers.

Also, the Panthers were scheduled to meet Wednesday with Arizona free-agent cornerback Antoine Cason, according to a source. Cason played under Carolina coach Ron Rivera when Rivera was the Chargers' defensive coordinator.

Meanwhile, the Panthers await word from Pittsburgh free-agent wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who concluded his visit on Tuesday. Cotchery is deciding between Carolina and a return to the Steelers. A decision is expected soon.

Free-agency review: Panthers

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Harper
Most significant signing: TBA. So far the most significant thing the Carolina Panthers have done in free agency is cut their all-time leading receiver, Steve Smith, who wasn't a free agent until he was released. Their only signing of any significance is former New Orleans safety Roman Harper, a replacement for free safety Mike Mitchell. But his signing is borderline in the significance column. Significant will come when Carolina finally signs a wide receiver, since at the moment quarterback Cam Newton has none with an NFL catch on the roster.

Most significant loss: Now this I can talk about, since that's what free agency has been all about for Carolina. The biggest loss among Carolina's free agents was Mitchell. The Panthers wanted to keep him, but Pittsburgh wanted him more (five years, $25 million). There have been two big losses among free agents from other teams that Carolina offered. The first was Cincinnati left tackle Anthony Collins, who went to NFC South rival Tampa Bay. The other was New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, who went to Indianapolis. Of the two, I'll say Collins was the biggest loss because it will be tougher to replace the retired Jordan Gross than a receiver.

Smith
Biggest surprise: After the release of Smith, which I still believe was a mistake, nothing has been a huge surprise. It's not big, but not finding a way to re-sign No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell (Patriots) or No. 3 Ted Ginn Jr. (Cardinals) to give Newton at least some sort of continuity from last season was at least mildly interesting. But maybe this was for the best. As I said repeatedly last season, LaFell was a disappointment as the No. 2. He was a No. 3 at best, although with Tom Brady now throwing to him, that could change. With no bona fide No. 1 available, maybe Carolina is thinking three bona fide No. 2s and a flashy draft pick will be better than a 1, 2 and 3.

What's next? General manager Dave Gettleman said all along he was looking for bargains in free agency, so letting the first wave pass with no fanfare doesn't come as a surprise. I suspected all along the Panthers would wait for the second and third wave to fill out their roster. They waited eight days before signing the majority of their free agents a year ago. Right now, they're targeting wide receivers. Pittsburgh's Jerricho Cotchery arrived for a visit Monday. They had interest in Green Bay's James Jones until he signed with Oakland late Monday afternoon. Carolina also is looking for a starting cornerback. A player like Arizona's Antoine Cason, who played for Carolina coach Ron Rivera at San Diego, could draw interest.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has some new competition for his patented "Superman" celebration, and it's not San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick.

It's his own head coach.

After winning the Associated Press Coach of the Year award in New York City on Saturday, Ron Rivera unbuttoned his suit jacket backstage and mimicked the move his Pro Bowl quarterback does after scoring touchdowns.

Or as his daughter wrote on Instagram, "yes this dork did the supercam pose backstage after he won!!''

Rivera laughed when asked about the move. But it speaks volumes about the man because, like Seattle coach Pete Carroll, who a day later won the trophy Rivera really wanted, he's not afraid to share his personality with his players and the public.

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
Courtesy Rivera familyRon Rivera perfomed Cam Newton's Superman move after winning the NFL's coach of the year honors.
And vice versa, he's not afraid to let his players share their personality.

The "Superman" pose is defense exhibit A on the former.

"What happened there was a little chance to poke a little bit of fun and have a little bit of fun," Rivera told ESPN.com. "And it was nice. I do value the relationship I have with our players. There is a professionalism to that relationship, but at the same time I understand they're people and there's a certain way to handle them at certain times.

"I try to be open minded about it."

Personality isn't the only thing Rivera has in common with Carroll, who led the Seahawks to a 43-8 victory over Denver in the Super Bowl. They also have similar philosophies.

Consider: Both teams are built around a defense designed to pressure the quarterback with its front four, stop the run with its front seven and create turnovers. Both teams are built around an offense that relies heavily on the running game, a mobile quarterback and a collection of role-type player receivers. Both teams are built around solid special teams.

It's the same model San Francisco used to reach the NFC championship the past three seasons and the Super Bowl after the 2012 season. It's basically the same model Baltimore used to win the Super Bowl two years ago and the New York Giants did the year before that.

"That to me is kind of the model," Rivera said. "Being able to run the ball and control the clock and play good defense and get pressure with just four is going to be very important. It's going to be a premium in this league."

That's because the league has adopted so many rules to make it quarterback and passing friendly that it has to be the model to win on a consistent basis.

"It is a passing league," Rivera said. "Some of the rules do tend to favor the offensive side. If you have to blitz, now you are taking guys out of coverage and they can't protect."

Rivera believes now more than ever, after spending the weekend in the New York-New Jersey area and watching how Seattle won so handily, that he is doing the right things.

He should. Down to Seattle having 19 undrafted players on its roster compared to Carolina's 16, both teams have been smart about building their rosters.

If you want to look closer, Carroll was 25-23 in his first three regular seasons. He went 7-9 and 7-9 before turning things around with an 11-5 record in 2012.

Rivera also has gone 25-23 in his first three regular seasons. He went 6-10 and 7-9 before turning things around with a 12-4 record and NFC South title in 2013.

The difference is Carroll's first team won a weak NFC West with a losing record and made the playoffs.

Whether or not Rivera and Carolina can take the next step that Seattle took in Carroll's fourth season remains to be seen. The Panthers have 21 unrestricted free agents and are somewhat strapped under the salary cap.

Rivera's goal is to re-sign as many of those players as possible and maintain a chemistry that was as much a part of Carolina's success as it was Seattle's this year.

That's what Rivera took away from his trip to New York as a spectator and award winner.

"What it's done is kind of shown to me what it feels like," he said of the Super Bowl atmosphere. "I got an opportunity to get a sense for it. Do I want to get back? Most certainly. Believe me, that's what the ultimate goal is.

"The goal is not necessarily to win personal awards as much as it is to win the team award, and that's to win the Super Bowl. That's what the vision was when I came here. We took a step this year."
Ron Rivera and Andy ReidUSA TODAY SportsRon Rivera and Andy Reid are both deserving of coach of the year -- but only one can win.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera and Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid are among the favorites to win the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year award on Saturday.

Rivera took a Carolina team that hadn't been to the playoffs since 2008 from a 1-3 start to a 12-4 regular-season record and the NFC South title. Reid took a Kansas City team that had the worst record (2-14) in the NFL in 2012 to an 11-5 record and second place in the AFC West.

Both lost in the playoffs, Carolina 23-10 in an NFC divisional game against San Francisco and Kansas City 45-44 to Indianapolis in a wild-card game.

Rivera and Reid are in New York City, where on Saturday night the NFL will salute the best of the 2013 season with "NFL Honors" at Radio City Music Hall.

New England's Bill Belichick and Philadelphia's Chip Kelly also are under consideration for Coach of the Year. ESPN.com NFL Nation Panthers reporter David Newton and Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher are here to tell you why it's a two-man race:

Adam, first of all, do you agree this should come down to Rivera or Reid?

Teicher:Those are the two strongest candidates. Some others deserve consideration. Think it was a strong year in this regard. Mike McCoy in San Diego, Bill Belichick in New England and Chip Kelly in Philadelphia did a nice job as well. But when you boil it down, Reid and Rivera are the two best candidates. The Chiefs had too much talent in 2012 to win just two games, so maybe this speaks to what a lousy job their previous coaching staff did. The Chiefs weren't just bad when Reid walked through the door. They had been blown out in most of their games in 2012. They didn't have many narrow losses. I know how far the Panthers have come as well. They were so bad in 2012 that they were one of the two teams to lose to the Chiefs.

Which way would you go with your vote?

Newton: I could see it going either way, but I'd have to say Rivera. The Panthers started 0-2 and then 1-3. There was speculation there could be a coaching change before the bye week if they went to 0-3. It's tough enough to turn around a team that is used to winning. Rivera did it four games into the season with a team that hadn't had a winning record in five years. Winning eight straight and 11 of the final 12 regular season games -- including back-to-back wins against San Francisco and New England -- was impressive. That the Panthers really had to win all those games to win the division and even make the playoffs with New Orleans, San Francisco and Arizona breathing down their backs for the final two spots is a testament to the work ethic Rivera instilled. That he didn't panic or make changes to what he was doing when the season was on the brink made the turnaround possible. That the players fought for him when he didn't have a track record for winning -- as Reid did -- also speaks volumes.

So who do you think deserves it more?

Teicher: It's a tough call. No doubt there's more to like about Carolina's body of work this season. Kansas City was 10-0 against non-playoff teams and 1-5 against teams that made the postseason. But I still believe the Chiefs travelled a longer distance. Reid did more than help the Chiefs win games. He helped change what had been the miserable, rotten culture that permeated the entire organization. When he walked in the door, the Chiefs were infested with people who pulled in different directions and were out for themselves. He got everybody to believe in the greater good. He was able to get a lot of players to put aside personal goals for those of the team. That's a long-winded way of saying I would vote for Reid.

Having said all this, it seems every year this award goes to a coach whose team has an amazing turnaround. Do you think it's unfair to coaches like Belichick that win all the time?

Newton: Miserable? Infested? Rotten? You trying to make me change my vote? The culture wasn't that bad at Carolina, but the losing was and Kansas City had more talent to start with, which again sways me back to Rivera. But to the question, I agree coaches like Belichick get overlooked because they do such a good job every year. I compare it to Dean Smith when he was the basketball coach at North Carolina. It took him 16 years to finally win the national coach of the year award even though year in and year out he had one of the best programs in the country. People overlook the obvious. Belichick doesn't get the credit because people see he has Tom Brady and forget how he meshes sometimes average players into a playoff team. Having said that, I'd still vote for Rivera this year.

Note: Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is up for Defensive Player of the Year and outside linebacker Thomas Davis is up for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles is up for the Offensive Player of the Year Award.
Ron RiveraMichael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty ImagesRon Rivera led the Panthers to a division title after a 1-3 start.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ron Rivera's seat in his Bank of America Stadium office was hot.

The Carolina Panthers were 0-2 and there was speculation the head coach wouldn't survive through the bye week if the team lost at home against the New York Giants.

"This is new ground for me," Rivera said on Wednesday before the Week 3 Giants game. "I'm fortunate I've got some guys that have been through these tough times. I've talked to several of them a couple of times. I've got some friends in the league that I call and talk with.

"And I obviously talk to my family, talk to my wife. You always find a source of inspiration somewhere."

Ironically, Rivera became the source of inspiration for the Panthers. Players love playing for him and wanted to see him succeed. Many felt he was in this position because they let him down.

So they dug in deep. They became stronger as a group and learned how to win as a team.

And they won a lot -- 12 of their final 14 regular-season games to capture the NFC South title and a first-round bye in the playoffs. Many told me they were playing for Rivera more than themselves.

Now Rivera is hot. He's so hot that on Tuesday the Panthers gave him a three-year extension that will keep him as the head coach through 2017. Terms were not immediately available, but hopefully he got a hefty raise from the four-year, $11.2 million deal he signed in 2011.

It was the right move.

It was the only move.

To let Rivera go into the final year of his original deal as a lame duck coach would've shown a lack of confidence by the organization in a man who never lost confidence in what he was doing for the organization. It would have been wrong. It would have been unjust.

The Panthers went down that road with John Fox, who failed to put together consecutive winning seasons despite taking the Panthers to the Super Bowl in 2003 and NFC championship in 2005, and it didn't work out so well.

Carolina went 2-14 in Fox's final season and left Rivera with a mess. It turned all right for Fox, who went to Denver where he ultimately got Peyton Manning and a team capable of beating Seattle in the Super Bowl on Sunday.

Now it has turned out all right for Rivera.

General manager Dave Gettleman said after the season that Marty Hurney, the person who was in his seat before he arrived last February, did a lot of good things to make this past season possible.

Hiring Rivera was one of them.

The professionalism Rivera showed under the microscope at 0-2 and 1-3 showed what type of person he is. That he stuck with the plan he laid out three years ago and didn't make drastic change for the sake of change while under fire showed what kind of coach he is.

The Panthers had to extend Rivera's deal for the same reason Rivera felt he had to hire Mike Shula as his offensive coordinator after Rob Chudzinski left to become the head coach at Cleveland after the 2012 season.

Continuity.

Teams that constantly change head coaches tend to fail. Look no further than the Browns, who gave up on Chudzinski after one season.

Had the Panthers given up on Rivera at 0-2 or 1-3, think of all they might have missed.

Rivera still has something to prove. He can't follow up a good season with a losing season as Fox did over and over.

But at least now the future looks bright. The team has a franchise quarterback in Cam Newton and franchise quarterback of the defense in middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. It has most of the front seven returning from a defense that finished second in the NFL against the run and in total defense.

It has some cap space to play with to improve thanks to Gettleman, who made necessary cuts and restructuring of deals to get there.

Gettleman said he needed three or four weeks to evaluate the players -- 21 that are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents -- for what they did for 17 weeks before making personnel decisions that will impact the team's long-term future.

Signing Rivera shouldn't have taken 17 days. It was a no-brainer.

Rivera's seat in his office at Bank of America Stadium still is hot, but now for the right reasons.

"For me to bury my head in the sand is not going to get it done," Rivera said before the Giants game in Week 3. "That's my approach. There is another week."

That approach earned him three more years.
Don't look for the Carolina Panthers to let Ron Rivera go through the final year of his contact as a lame duck coach.

Payton
Rivera
The Charlotte Observer reported on Sunday from the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, where Rivera and his staff are coaching the annual all-star game, that according to league sources the team has reached out to the third-year coach to begin negotiations on an extension.

Asked about a possible extension by phone from Hawaii on Friday, Rivera told ESPN.com: "Once everything settles down that will be addressed. Right now, I'm out here. Dave's [general manager Dave Gettleman] at the Senior Bowl. Everything happens in time."

Rivera, 52, signed a four-year deal worth $11.2 million in 2011. As I wrote after the Panthers finished 12-5 with a loss to San Francisco in the NFC divisional playoffs, the team needs to extend Rivera's deal now.

The team did not extend John Fox in the final year of his contract in 2010 and the Panthers went 2-14. Fox then went to Denver, where he is preparing the Broncos for the Super Bowl.

Rivera went 6-10 and 7-9 in his first two seasons. There was speculation he wouldn't survive this season after a 1-3 start.

Carolina then won eight straight games and 11 of its final 12 in the regular season to win the NFC South title and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Asked about Rivera's contract following the season, Gettleman said, "I have ultimate faith in Ron moving forward. How’s that?"
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- I keep reading as NFL teams fill head coaching positions that this coach will be better than the previous one because he's willing to yell at his players and take a stand. Or this coach is going to be better because he won't yell at his players -- or fans as reportedly was the case with The Detroit Lions' Jim Schwartz.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera has the right temperament.

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
AP Photo/G. Newman LowrancePlayers respect Ron Rivera because he listens to input from his team.
He's stern with his players, but he's also willing to listen to what they have to say -- and more importantly act on it. It's a big reason he was able to keep the respect of his players when the Panthers were 1-3 after consecutive losing seasons, and a big reason they were able to rebound to finish 12-4 and win the NFC South.

Rivera is a player's coach through and through. He showed it again this week when he had dinner with left tackle Jordan Gross and a few other players in Charlotte to discuss ways he and the team could improve.

Yes, he asked players for input. He did the same thing a year ago after Carolina finished 7-9.

"I think last year it was written I had a difference with a couple of guys,'' Rivera said. "One of the things I learned from evaluating myself is you don’t see everything and hear everything and people don’t tell you what you need to hear sometimes. Last year, I asked them to open up and they did. It was very enlightening and it helped me.''

Rivera is reaping the benefits of improvement through self-evaluation. He already has been named the NFC Coach of the Year by NFL 101 Awards and the Coach of the Year by the Pro Football Writers Association.

He is a candidate for the Associated Press Coach of the Year Award that will be announced during the NFL Honors ceremony the night before the Feb. 2 Super Bowl in New York City.

"He's a player's coach," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn told me late this season. "That's key to it, man. He respects everybody and he will go to battle for all of us. If somebody is talking bad about us, he's always taking the blame.

"Like a couple of years ago, certain [losses] weren't his fault, but he was always taking the blame for it. He put that on his shoulders. I just respect that as a person and a man.''

Rivera does it in a soft-spoken manner for the most part. Ironically, he learned from one of the most well-known sideline yellers in NFL history in former Chicago coach Mike Ditka.

"Not everybody is built the same,'' said Rivera, who played and coached under Ditka. "My approach is to treat everybody the same and treat them the way I want to be treated. I don't like to say it out loud. I like to come up to the guy and say it, man to man, eye to eye, as opposed to just out and screaming.''

In the end, whether you yell or don't, it's about respect.

Rivera has that.

Carolina Panthers season wrap-up

January, 15, 2014
1/15/14
2:00
PM ET

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 3
Preseason Power Ranking: 23

Biggest surprise: "Riverboat Ron." Not often does a coach admit he needs to change, but Ron Rivera did after a 24-23 loss to Buffalo dropped Carolina to 0-2. He admitted he should have gone for it on fourth-and-1 with 1:42 remaining and leading by three. He admitted he needed to show more confidence in his offense to make a yard and his defense to make stops. He went from one of the league's most conservative fourth-down coaches to one of the most aggressive, and added a nickname. He successfully went for it twice on the opening drive against Minnesota to start an eight-game winning streak. He went for it late on fourth-and-10 deep in his own territory to set up the winning touchdown against Miami. Carolina finished the regular season 10-of-13 on fourth-down attempts. Ironically, it was a failed attempt in the playoff game against San Francisco that led to the Panthers' 23-10 loss.

Biggest disappointment: The inability to win a home playoff game once again, which came in large part because of the team's late-season inability to convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns. The Panthers ran eight plays inside the San Francisco 10-yard line in Sunday's playoff loss, and came away with no touchdowns. Four times they had an opportunity to score from the 1 and failed. Had they converted even one, it would have been a one-score game at the end, leaving open the possibility for a comeback. I'm still wondering why 6-foot-5 quarterback Cam Newton didn't get the call on third down and less than 2 feet. You would think he could have jumped up and thrust the ball over the goal line.

Biggest need: If Newton is to have success as the team's franchise quarterback he needs to have more weapons. Outside of the aging-but-still-effective Steve Smith, and occasional moments from Ted Ginn Jr., he has none at this position. Brandon LaFell did little over the final three games to prove he should be re-signed as the team's No. 2 receiver. He could have been selected for the season's biggest disappointment. Don't be surprised to see the team address this position in free agency and the draft, which is heavy with receiver talent. It was obvious in the playoff loss against San Francisco that a major difference between Newton and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was talent at receiver.

Team MVP: This is a tough one. Part of me says Greg Hardy, whose team-leading 15 sacks and 38 quarterback pressures were key to what the team does on defense. Not to mention he played every position along the defensive front at some point. But I have to go with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. He led the league's second-ranked defense in tackles with 176. He is the brains and leader of this unit. His ability to cover some of the league's top tight ends as well as set the tone for stopping the run was invaluable. His 24 tackles in a 17-13 victory against New Orleans in Week 16 helped keep the Panthers close enough to pull off a win that helped them clinch the NFC South title.

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