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Panthers' Rivera knows he has to win next season

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Panthers' Rivera knows he has to win next season

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Panthers owner Jerry Richardson doesn't need to remind coach Ron Rivera just how important winning in 2013 is to his future as an NFL head coach.

He already knows.

Rivera told The Associated Press Tuesday that when he met with Richardson earlier this month and was informed he'd be returning for a third season in Carolina, he wasn't given a make-the-playoffs-or-else ultimatum from his boss.

``He doesn't want me looking over my shoulder,'' Rivera said. ``He wants me to coach.''

But while the coach said Richardson has been supportive, he acknowledged there's an underlying sense of urgency.

``I understand we need to win - and he knows I understand that,'' Rivera said. ``He's been forthright and direct. Now it's up to me.''

Richardson's patience is wearing thin.

The Panthers haven't made the postseason since 2008 and haven't won a playoff game since 2005.

Carolina went 6-10 and 7-9 the past two seasons under Rivera.

The 76-year-old Richardson fired longtime general manager Marty Hurney following a 1-5 start and informed Rivera the Panthers needed to be ``trending upward'' the rest of the season for him to keep his job.

The Panthers responded by winning five of six games down the stretch, including their final four to finish in second place in the NFC South.

After more than a week deliberating, Richardson met with Rivera and told him he still had a job.

New GM Dave Gettleman also gave Rivera a nod of approval recently, saying in his introductory press conference that ``I don't have a list of head coaches in my back pocket. I have no interest in that.''

But to say Rivera's job is secure would be a stretch, particularly if the team gets off to another slow start next season.

The Panthers have started 2-8 in each of the last two seasons under Rivera, essentially ruining any shot at the playoffs. They're 9-3 overall in post-Thanksgiving Day games.

That strong finish - and the promise of a brighter future - helped save Rivera's job.

``We have to continue that trend,'' Rivera said. ``We cannot take a step back. I know that. The players know that. The coaches know that. But it's going to be up to me - and deservedly so. I'm the head coach and that's why I've done the things I've done this offseason.''

One of those things was to promote quarterbacks coach Mike Shula as the team's new offensive coordinator to replace Rob Chudzinski, who left the team to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

Shula's track record in his previous four seasons as an offensive coordinator with Tampa Bay wasn't spectacular numbers-wise.

The Bucs finished 29th in total offense during that span - but reached the NFC championship in Shula's final season there in 1999.

Rivera said Shula's working knowledge of the Carolina offense and familiarity with franchise quarterback Cam Newton helped earn him the job over outsiders Hue Jackson and Pat Shurmur, both of whom interviewed for the position.

The coach said the decision centered around Newton's late-season development.

Over the final six games Newton combined for 14 touchdowns - 10 passing and two rushing - and had only two turnovers. The Panthers simplified the playbook and asked Newton to do less on offense.

Less turned out to mean more.

``I think the way Cam played the second half of the season, protecting the football the way he did and not giving up big sacks, just the way he played, his growth....'' Rivera said. ``He really had to go through the maturation process.''

He didn't want to ruin that momentum by forcing Newton to learn a new system.

``That was it,'' Rivera said. ``Mike was with (the other candidates) step-for-step in terms of offensive thinking and planning and strategy. But the bottom line is familiarity with who we are as a football team.

``You also have to be concerned (with a new coordinator) with how much of what you do will he use and how much of what he's done in the past will he add? The thing I felt like we needed to do was stick to what we did down the stretch, refine those things and, in some cases, correct the things we had problems with. Listening to Mike, if we were going to add something it was going to be in line with what we've done in the past.''

Rivera believes strengthening the team's line play is a priority on offense and developing the team's young receivers is a must. Defensively, he likes the front seven but said the young secondary will need to grow up in a hurry.

He also wants to find a dual threat return man and most consistency from his young kickers Graham Gano and Brad Nortman.

Most of the improvements will have to come from players on the roster because at $16 million over the projected salary cap the Panthers will be doing more subtracting than adding to their current roster this offseason.

Still, Rivera remains optimistic.

``I think this team can grow into a playoff team, I really do,'' Rivera said. ``Mostly because of the way we played down the stretch and who we beat down the stretch. It's not like we beat teams that were all under .500 or we beat teams that didn't have good players. To me, that shows you are trending in the right direction, and I think that is important.''

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Lamar Jackson’s play this season has begun to make some analysts and fans backtrack 

Lamar Jackson’s play this season has begun to make some analysts and fans backtrack 

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Lamar Jackson is starting to make people reconsider what they think of him. 

After the Ravens’ 49-13 win over the Bengals on Sunday, the rest of the NFL is starting to take notice about Lamar Jackson’s status in the NFL. Especially considering his spin move through the Bengals defense.

Hall of Fame NFL general manager Bill Polian recently admitted that he was wrong when he said that Jackson should be an NFL wide receiver during his draft process in 2018.

“I was wrong, because I used the old, traditional quarterback standard with him, which is clearly why John Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome were more prescient than I was,” Polian told USA TODAY Sports. 

Jackson is currently building an MVP case for himself and is on-pace for over 30 touchdowns and nearly 5,000 yards of total offense. 

It’s a nice change of pace for the 22-year-old quarterback in his second year as a pro. Jackson had to face heavy criticism after he left Louisville for a variety of reasons headed into the draft. Even after he took over as the Ravens quarterback, those evaluations persisted. 

“We always knew what he was about,” Ravens center Matt Skura said. “We always knew his ability to make plays and all that stuff. I think it’s just people right now seeing it on a much larger scale and it’s just getting the attention now.”

At this point, however, it’s clear that not only is Jackson a quarterback, he might even be the MVP of the league.

Of the five quarterbacks drafted in the first round of the 2018 Draft, only four are starting and just two have led their teams to a winning record. Jackson leads all of his draft counterparts in total yards and total touchdowns. 

But as anyone in the Ravens’ locker room will say, the accolades don’t concern Jackson — only the record does.

“I think he’s more concerned with winning than anything,” Orlando Brown Jr. said. “As individuals, we’ve all got people to prove wrong and things that we used to put a chip on our shoulder. At the end of the day, I know he’s more concerned with winning more than anything.”

Still, it’s noteworthy that it only took Jackson a complete season of starts, through two partial seasons, to begin the backtracking across the NFL landscape.

“If you watch ESPN or you watch TV, it’s going to come up no matter what,” Skura said. “Even on your Instagram feed it’s going to come up. I think for a lot of us, just in one ear and out the other as far as people pumping us up. You’ve kind of got to stay level-headed and ride the rollercoaster, so to say.”

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Hayden Hurst set on helping those with depression, anxiety with new documentary titled “Headstrong”

Hayden Hurst set on helping those with depression, anxiety with new documentary titled “Headstrong”

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Hayden Hurst immediately saw the impact of his documentary last week when, just hours after it aired, people reached out to him to tell their stories. 

Hurst was a part of a documentary titled “Headstrong” that aired on NBC Sports Washington last week, which detailed his struggles with depression and anxiety as a baseball player. The documentary will air on NBCSN on Nov. 20.

Now, Hurst is reaching out to tell his story in hopes of impacting those who struggle with mental illness, as he did.

“I think it’s going to reach a lot of people,” Hurst said. “Some people even reached out to tell me stuff that affects them in their lives. It’s very cool, it’s very humbling.”

Hurst was a standout baseball player in high school and was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 17th round of the 2012 MLB Draft. He signed immediately and began his professional baseball career. 

But shortly thereafter, Hurst developed the “Yips,” and he was unable to throw strikes like he once did. On the mound, his hands shook when he attempted to pitch. Off the field, his condition began to deteriorate. 

He said he began to self-medicate and that’s when he started to seek help. 

After he retired from baseball, he decided to play football at the University of South Carolina and began to treat his mental illness. In 2018, he was a first-round pick of the Ravens.

“It’s night and day from where I was,” Hurst said. “Back in the baseball days, my lack of success in baseball kind of led to my off the field issues. I kind of self-medicated a little bit to make everything go away. Where I’m at now, I’m so much more mature, I’m so much more in-tune with the person that I am, I’m close with my family.”

Hurst is now set out on telling his story to help others who might be in the same situation that he was in. With his background as a professional baseball and football player, he’s hopeful that people will see his situation and feel compelled to talk about what they’ve been going through.

“I really want to tell my story so I get it out there and people can relate to it and they can see it and read it and see the silver lining in it,” Hurst said. “I think a lot of people struggle with things and not a lot of people like talking about it.”

It’s difficult for him to make speeches and speak with others during the NFL season, but he’s got plans to travel to Columbia, South Carolina and Jacksonville, Florida to reach out to people who might be in need of help in the offseason.

He’s already begun work in Baltimore and wants to continue to help through his foundation, the Hayden Hurst Family Foundation. 

For now, though, he wants everyone to know that it’s OK to not be OK. Hurst’s story proves that. 

“I think more people are affected by it than we think,” Hurst said. “It’s a sensitive topic and not many people like talking about it. I’m in a position where — this sounds worse than it is — I really don’t care what people think about me. I am who I am, it’s part of the make up of who I am and I’m going to tell my story.”

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