By Steve Reed
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Desperate to shake things up amid a four-game losing streak, Panthers coach Ron Rivera announced Monday he is taking over defensive playing calling duties
In addition to demoting defensive coordinator Eric Washington, the Panthers also fired defensive line coach Brady Hoke and assistant secondary/cornerbacks coach Jeff Imamura. The moves were announced after Rivera met with owner David Tepper and general manager Marty Hurney on Monday morning.
“Everything that I do is in the best interest of this team,” Rivera said at a news conference, adding that his meeting with the owner did not influence his decision. “We do things to win.”
Washington will remain defensive coordinator and have some input on the game plan for Sunday’s game at Cleveland, but will oversee the front seven instead of the entire defense. He served as the team’s defensive line coach for seven seasons before being promoted to coordinator this past offseason when Steve Wilks left to become head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.
Sam Mills III will lead the defensive line and Rivera will work with Richard Rodgers in the secondary.
Rivera, a former defensive coordinator in Chicago (2006-08) and San Diego (2008-10), said he “helped out” with defensive play calls in Sunday’s following a 24-17 loss to Tampa Bay. He got more engaged after the Buccaneers drove the length of the field on the game’s opening drive and scored a touchdown to take a 7-0 lead.
Rivera said while Tepper didn’t influence his decision, he added that he keeps the owner and GM “informed of the decisions going forward for this football team.”
The coach wouldn’t elaborate on the specifics of why he decided to make the changes now. Though the problems are pretty evident.
The Panthers are 14th in the league in defense under Washington and have allowed the 12th most points in the NFL. Carolina’s defense, long known for its knack for creating takeaways and pressuring the quarterback, has forced just one turnover in the past four games and is tied for 19th in the league in sacks.
“In watching and looking, this puts me in the middle of everything as far as the defense is concerned,” Rivera said. “I have a bit of experience at play calling and putting defenses together. It’s an opportunity for me to work even closer with him to help him out as we go forward. Y’all got to remember your first time doing something. You weren’t perfect and somebody had to help you. That’s really what I’m here for.”
Panthers 15-year veteran safety Mike Adams said he’s not sure how much will change with Rivera at the helm, saying he has been helping Washington most of the season.
In his view, the Panthers aren’t performing up to expectations — and that’s on the players.
“The tradition of the Panthers defense is when you put us on the field in the past and the game is on the line, you know we’re going to win and close out — and we haven’t done that as much this year,” Adams said.
The changes also come at time when there are questions about Rivera’s own job security. The Panthers have been to the playoffs four of the past five seasons under Rivera, who signed a two-year contract extension worth $15.5 million in January that runs through 2020.
Rivera declined to talk about whether Tepper has put him on notice.
“Quite honestly, if you know Mr. Tepper that’s not his style,” Rivera said. “He’s very up front, very forward. I’ve been very fortunate to have a good collaboration between him, myself and the general manager.”
Rivera, a two-time NFL coach of the year with a 70-53-1 record as the Panthers head coach, has seen his team go from contending for the NFC South after a 6-2 start to being on the outside looking in at the playoff picture after losing four in a row — including a 52-21 beatdown at Pittsburgh in a nationally televised game Nov. 6.
One problem for Rivera has been a carousel of defensive coordinators, which he acknowledged has been difficult.
Washington is Carolina’s third in three seasons. Rivera’s previous two coordinators, Sean McDermott and Wilks, left to take head coaching positions.
He briefly addressed reports that Tepper is getting antsy and mulling new hires if Rivera didn’t get things turned around.
“I’m not going to deal in conjecture,” Rivera said. “What I’m going to deal with is the facts. Until I see a comment that has his name attached to it being quoted, I’m not worry about it. I’m going to focus in on my job, and my job is getting ready for Cleveland.”