New Panthers coach remains upbeat during lockout

As Carolina Panthers players organized a week of workouts, their

new coach was forced to find out secondhand how they went.

”Guys who have been able to go out and see them have been able

to tell me some really nice things about our guys,” Ron Rivera

said Friday. ”They say, ‘Coach, they’re working hard. It’s good to

see. They have 54 guys out there.’

”That’s outstanding.”

Of course, it would be stupendous for Rivera if there wasn’t a

labor dispute and he was the one working out his players. Instead,

the first-year head coach is part of one of the most bizarre NFL

offseasons. The lockout has prevented his new staff from meeting

with players, installing the new offense and defense, signing

needed free agents and getting raw rookies up to speed.

It’s bad for all teams, but it’s worse for teams with new

coaches. It’s even worse if that coach is preparing for his first

season in charge of an NFL team. It gets to the ridiculous stage

when the team that coach is taking over went an NFL-worst 2-14 last

season and may be about to start a rookie quarterback in Cam

Newton.

”I am anxious about that, most certainly,” Rivera said after

meeting U.S. Army troops at Fort Bragg. ”But everybody will have

the same set of circumstances, situations. We’re just going to have

to make sure when we do it, we do it the right way and we’re ready

to go when the time comes.”

It’s hard to squash Rivera’s seemingly endless optimism. The

former San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator likes to find the

positives in everything, so he stressed how impressed he was that

so many of his new players organized workouts on their own at a

Charlotte high school that are scheduled to run through

Thursday.

”I’m very proud of them, just that we’ve had some guys step up

and show some leadership, taking charge,” Rivera said. ”They’ve

taken ownership, which I think is very important. I think it’s part

of growing as a team.”

But while the players were able to get playbooks the one day the

lockout was lifted in April and the league opened for business,

there’s a limit to how much players can learn on their own.

”You can see the X’s and O’s and name and where this is

going,” said retired defensive end Mike Rucker, now a television

analyst for Carolina’s preseason games. ”But there’s still going

to be little things that the coaches have to explain to you. When

you’re dropping into coverage, this might be a little hairy. He’s

got to define that for you.”

”It’s going to be a challenge.”

Rivera said his staff have completed all the notes to install

the offense and defense. They’re finished putting together the red

zone, short yardage and goal line offenses. They’ve studied their

first five opponents and their division foes.

They’ve even made contingency plans if the lockout is lifted and

there’s only a few weeks until the season starts.

”As it goes along, it will change our approach,” Rivera said

of an extended lockout.

But Rivera needs players to work with – and players to stock up

the roster.

Rivera would like to add a veteran defensive linemen, linebacker

and defensive back. He thinks the offensive line will be OK – as

long as right tackle Jeff Otah comes back from his knee injury.

He’s happy with the running backs and tight ends.

But there are big questions at quarterback. Rivera said Matt

Moore, who began last season as the starter, could possibly be

re-signed. Rivera wants to sign a veteran to work with Newton and

Jimmy Clausen.

And Rivera acknowledged they must ”resolve the wide receiver

position.”

That means figuring out what to do with four-time Pro Bowl pick

Steve Smith, whom Rivera acknowledged has expressed misgivings

about returning. But Rivera said trading or releasing him is ”not

a foregone conclusion.”

”One thing I did tell Steve is that we’ll make a decision that

we feel is best for the team,” Rivera said. ”and at the same time

keeping him in serious consideration for what he would like.”

Of course, Rivera can’t do anything with Smith because of the

lockout. He can’t watch his players work out. He can’t fill out his

roster.

He can’t start the biggest job of his life.

”I can’t sit there and worry what I can’t control,” Rivera

said. ”For me, the biggest thing is when it does break we’re all

going to be in the same boat.”

Mike Cranston can be reached at

http://twitter.com/MikeCranston1.