ASHBURN — Ron Rivera said he has no reason to be bitter. Sure, the Carolina Panthers fired him in 2019. But as the Washington coach prepares to return to Bank of America Stadium for the first time since being let go, Rivera says the Panthers treated him with “tremendous dignity and respect” on the way out the door.
Rivera even respects how the Panthers have rebuilt their roster in his absence.
“Kudos to them,” Rivera said.
Sunday’s game against the Panthers will be a reunion for Rivera and many others who are now with the Burgundy and Gold. Washington has more than 30 coaches, executives and players who hold Carolina ties — including Rivera, executive Marty Hurney, offensive coordinator Scott Turner and quarterback Taylor Heinicke.
But the faces they’ll recognize on the opposing sideline won’t be as many as one might expect. Since hiring coach Matt Rhule, the Panthers have largely overturned their roster — with only 15 players (including injured reserve and the practice squad) remaining from the Rivera era.
The Panthers have committed to rebuilding under Rhule — but have taken a different approach than Washington. Specifically, Carolina has taken big swings at quarterback in a way that Washington hasn’t.
Under owner David Tepper and new general manager Scott Fitterer, Carolina has been aggressive in an attempt to get back in contention. The Panthers enter the weekend at 5-5, currently holding the third wild card spot in the NFC.
“I’ve gotten a chance to watch them on tape a lot, like I did last year, and then watching them now, you see that they’ve done some really good things,” Rivera said. “You look at the secondary and with the exception of (cornerback) Donte Jackson, it’s a completely different group. … They’ve done a nice job.”
Two years into their respective rebuilds, neither Rivera nor Rhule have found a long-term solution at quarterback. But the way they’ve gone about trying to address the position illustrates a fundamental difference between the two coaches.
In Washington, Rivera has been content to build pieces around the quarterback first — relying on stopgaps and journeymen to play under center, in the meantime.
This season, Washington turned to Heinicke after 38-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick was injured in Week 1. Last season, Washington used four players under center — two Rivera inherited and two he added. The team has avoided trading future draft capital or giving big money to free agents to find an answer.
Carolina, on the other hand, has pretty much done the opposite. The Panthers gave Teddy Bridgewater a three-year, $63 million contract in March 2020 — only to trade him to the Denver Broncos a year later. Then, Carolina’s brass appeared convinced they could salvage Sam Darnold’s career — trading three draft picks for the former Jets passer.
Now, after Darnold proved to be a disaster, the Panthers have gone bold again — bringing back Cam Newton last week on a one-year deal worth up to $10 million.
Rhule once cut Newton, the longtime Panthers starter and former MVP, but reached out following Darnold’s poor play and injured shoulder. Rhule said Wednesday that Newton is likely to start against Washington.
“We owe it to our players to try and go win,” Rhule told reporters. “We owe it to our fans to try and go win. We are bringing in Cam, he’s a former MVP, so to have a guy like that come in it was a no-brainer.”
Rhule said the Panthers feel like they have a team that’s ready to win. That’s largely due to the Panthers’ defense — a unit that ranks second in total yards allowed and sixth in points against.
Even there, the Panthers’ aggressive approach to their roster can be seen. After first-rounder Jaycee Horn suffered a broken foot, Carolina then traded for two cornerbacks: C.J. Henderson (the ninth overall pick in 2020) and Stephon Gilmore (two-time All-Pro).
The Panthers, who went 5-11 in Rhule’s first year, are looking to get back into the playoffs for the first time since the 2017 season. Washington made the postseason last year in Rivera’s first season, though finished 7-9.
“This is about bringing in (new players) and rebuilding and saying, ‘These are the guys for our future,’” Rivera said. “That’s what it looks like to me.”