Panthers trapped in Groundhog’s Day scenario

Ron Rivera must think he’s morphed into Bill Murray and is smack dab in the middle of the 1993 film Groundhog Day. 

But instead of Andie McDowell and Chris Elliott, he’s teaming with Cam Newton and the rest of the Carolina Panthers in a season that is eerily similar to what transpired last fall.

In Rivera’s first year at the helm in 2011, also Newton’s rookie campaign, the Panthers earned records of 1-6 and 2-8 before winning four out of five to improve to 6-9. They lost the final game of the season at New Orleans to finish at 6-10.

In the second go-around for Rivera, his team began the season 1-6 and then 2-8 again and have now won three of their last four contests to improve to 5-9. Carolina hosts Oakland on Sunday in a game it should win, and improve to 6-9, before closing out the season at – you guessed it – New Orleans. 

If Rivera wants to return next season, reality must shake the organization’s foundation and swat away any other similarities a year ago. If you take Rivera at his own words, finishing 6-10 likely won’t cut it.

“I think we have to keep going,” the coach said Monday, a day after his club clobbered the San Diego Chargers 31-7. “This is not about a couple of good, emotional wins. It’s really about the whole of the body of work from a certain point on. And that’s what we’re looking for.”

Rivera almost spoke like an owner or general manager with those words. But maybe since the Panthers haven’t had a GM since Marty Hurney was fired two months ago and the coach has spoken with owner Jerry Richardson a couple of times, he knows all too well about his situation. It is highly doubtful Rivera’s fate has been decided, even though at times he’s worn the look of a man clinging to one final thread. Starting out 2-8 will do that to a coach.

The 36-7 home loss to the Giants in September was the lowest point in terms of on-field performance. But a 36-14 home loss to the Broncos may have been worse because the Panthers simply beat themselves that afternoon. An overtime loss at home to Tampa a week later appeared to seal Rivera’s fate. 

But the Panthers have won three of four, with the loss inexplicably at woeful Kansas City the day after the Chiefs dealt with a tragedy in which a player killed his girlfriend and later himself in front of team personnel.

That often-criticized quarterback Cam Newton has turned around from ridicule to praise, squashing the notion of a sophomore slump, should bode well for Rivera’s job security. Newton wasn’t handling the position, the press conferences and who knows what else as well as he should have, and in time has come around.

Dating back to a 21-13 victory at Washington on Nov. 4, in a battle with of the last two Heisman Trophy winners, Newton got the better of Redskins’ quarterback Robert Griffin III because his team won. That was so important.

Carolina is 4-4 since and Newton has played like the No. 1 overall draft pick he was in 2011. He currently owns the NFL’s longest active streak of 152 pass attempts without throwing an interception. 

Newton’s game management is beginning to match his amazing arm and breathtaking physical attributes. Some of the credit belongs to Rivera and the offensive staff. After all, Newton still believes in them, or so he says. And there’s really no reason to challenge the player’s veracity.

Carolina has lost seven games by six points or less. One came in overtime, another by a point in a fluke loss at Chicago, another by two points in a late blown game at Atlanta. 

Maybe the Panthers win one or two of those games had Newton matured quicker and the defense, which has performed well above last season’s effort, not been so ravaged by injuries. 

The same thing basically happened last year, and the Panthers simply outscored some teams to close the campaign. Players’ preseason boasting of postseason success was quickly squelched, though, and here they are again, trying to make something of the season.

The only real difference is that Rivera’s job wasn’t in jeopardy as Christmas approached last year. It is now. 

That should make each morning slightly different than last December, even if everything else seems the same.