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NFL AM: Panthers Give Ron Rivera Three-Year Contract Extension

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The reigning NFL Coach of the Year has signed on to continue leading in Carolina.

At the conclusion of the team’s mandatory minicamp this week, the Carolina Panthers and head coach Ron Rivera put pen to paper on a three-year contract extension that puts the two-time coach of the year under contract with the Cats through the 2018 season. Rivera’s previous deal was set to run out after the 2016 season. The reported $19.5 million price tag is a $2 million per year raise for Rivera and puts him firmly in the Top 10 in terms of coach salaries, where he rightfully belongs.

“It was an easy decision,” Panthers General Manager Dave Gettleman said. “Ron has worked extremely hard and we are thrilled with our current direction. Mr. Richardson has established a great culture here and Ron is a big part of that.”

But the Panthers didn’t always feel that way about Rivera. The coach, who arrived in Carolina for his first head coaching gig in 2011, after stints as defensive coordinator in Chicago and San Diego, was on the hot seat as recently as 2013, when a team that was coming off back-to-back seasons with a losing record started 0-2 and lost three of their first four games. But the Panthers went on to win 11 of their final 12 games to win the NFC South and get to the playoffs for the first time in five years. Rivera secured Coach of the Year honors for the turnaround that season.

Carolina has won the South and made it to the playoffs in every year since, including last year’s epic run to the Super Bowl. Despite myriad bouts of adversity for the team throughout the year, starting with the season-ending injury to star receiver Kelvin Benjamin in training camp, the Panthers were nearly flawless during the season, going 15-1 with a Week 16 loss to the Atlanta Falcons representing the lone blemish on their record. They went on to roll to the NFC title with dominant wins over Seattle and Arizona before succumbing to Denver in the Super Bowl.

But with a strong defense and a potent offense, there’s reason to believe the best is still yet to come in Carolina. The Panthers are banking Riverboat Ron to be the captain to take them there, and that’s not a bad bet at all.

OHER GETS CAROLINA EXTENSION, TOO

Rivera wasn’t the only one in Panthers black and blue cashing in on Friday.

Carolina starting left tackle Michael Oher signed a three-year extension reportedly worth $21.6 million, including $9.5 million in guarantees. It’s a huge reversal of fortune for the Blind Side blocker, who was cut by the Tennessee Titans last offseason and looked for a little while to be on his way to a disappointing end to his Hollywood story. But after catching on with the Panthers last spring, Oher earned himself a starting role on the Carolina offensive line and excelled in the blocking scheme.

“We’re very pleased,” Gettleman said in a press release. “Michael came in here last year and fit in extremely well. He really had a solid year. He’s in his prime right now and he’s healthy. He’s become a quality player for us.”

The now 30-year-old former first round pick started all 16 regular season games and all three playoff games for the Panthers in 2015, and was praised for his work anchoring the Carolina offensive line, especially in pass protection, where he graded highly according to Pro Football Focus. His play in the running scheme needs work, but a second full offseason in the system might aid him there.

That’s a good thing for Oher, who never quite found his niche in Baltimore after being drafted by the Ravens and got progressively worse over five seasons with the team. By the end of his rookie contract, the tackle was considered a draft bust and Baltimore showed little interest in retaining him. He landed in Tennessee, where he was an even worse fit and one year into a four-year, $20 million deal, the Titans cut ties with him.

His release left Oher with few options, and he ended up signing a two-year, $7 million deal with Carolina, where he had to earn a job. He did just that with an outstanding training camp after being reunited with offensive line coach John Matsko, who guided him during his early years in Baltimore. The Panthers were impressed enough by Oher’s performance to give him the most important role on their line, protecting franchise quarterback Cam Newton’s blind side.

The move to sign him to a three-year extension after just one good season when he still had another very cost efficient year left on his deal is another sign of good faith by the Panthers, one Oher was appreciative of, as he told the Charlotte Observer.

“I’m very excited. I really can’t wait to get to work. I don’t want to let these guys down. They believe in me,” he said. “I still have to prove myself. I’m still just trying to prove myself to them and just make sure I’m one of these guys because they do it right.”

CAM BELIEVES HIS CEILING IS HIGHER

The 2016 offseason for the Carolina Panthers, aside from the Josh Norman mess, has been all about stability and building on what the team accomplished in 2015 to take that last step and become a champion. But when it comes down to it for Carolina, there’s only one man who can finish the job.

Cam Newton believes he is ready to do just that.

After completing his sixth minicamp as a member of the Panthers, Newton spoke to the media about his expectations for the coming season, and the reigning league MVP set a high bar for himself to clear in his follow-up campaign, as he told the Charlotte Observer.

“I haven’t peaked,” he said. “I always can find ways to take my game to the next level, and just getting everybody on the same page as one of the captains on this team, I take that very pridefully. And knowing there are a lot of people looking at me, as well as others, to lead the team.”

Newton’s leadership has been called into question repeatedly since the Super Bowl when much was made of his decision-making on a mid-game fumble and later in a post-game media scrum. But that’s the type of thing that comes with the territory of a championship loss, and there were few questions about his ability to lead when the Panthers rolled to wins in 17 of their 18 games prior to the Super Bowl.

For his part, Newton has done all he can to put the 2015 season, with its highs and its one spectacular low, behind him.

“I’m really so focused on June 2016 and going forward,” the Carolina quarterback said at the end of minicamp. “I think I don’t need to keep talking about things that happened in the past, and for what it’s worth, I’m here trying to get better, find ways to link up with my players in the offseason so that we can maximize our talents to start in playoff form at the start of the season.”

But what Newton can take from the way things went during and after the Super Bowl is learning experience. He can use those events as both fuel and education to inform his response to adversity in the future. It’s hard to believe there’s much higher he can go as a player in his sixth season. The numbers rarely get much bigger than the gaudy ones he put up in 2015. But decision-making can always improve.

What Newton does to bounce back from everything that happened last February will be an interesting subplot to this season for the Panthers. He’s grown by leaps and bounds as a NFL player, but at still just 27 years old, there remains a lot for him to learn on and off the field. How Newton handles those lessons and applies them to taking that next step, the one more step that needs to be taken to become a champion, will be vital to the ultimate success or failure of the Carolina Panthers.

 


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys