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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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How the Caps upset the Lightning to win the conference championship

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USA TODAY Sports

How the Caps upset the Lightning to win the conference championship

It wasn't supposed to happen.

The Capitals celebrated too hard after beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. The Tampa Bay Lightning had been here before. Tampa Bay's roster was deeper. Their goalie was hotter. They had home ice advantage. They had easily won their first two series. Nicklas Backstrom was still injured. Washington wouldn't be able to stop the Lightning's power play.

Here's how the Capitals were able to shock the hockey world and upset the Lightning.

For all of those reasons, many did not even give the Caps a chance. Washington overcame every obstacle in their way and was, for the most part, the better team through seven games defeating Tampa Bay to win the Eastern Conference for just the second time in franchise history.

The Capitals showed in their second-round win over the Penguins that these weren't the "same old Caps." They continued to prove that in the conference final when they stunned the Lightning to win Game 1 and Game 2 both on the road.

Here's how the Capitals were able to shock the hockey world and upset the Lightning.

When Washington lost the next three, many thought that meant the real Lightning had awoken, but it was the Caps who rose to the occasion in Game 6 and Game 7 where they face elimination as they completely dominated Tampa Bay by a combined score of 7-0.

The Caps now advance to take on the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final. The Knights have lost only three games this entire postseason and will hope to carry that momentum with them into Game 1.

If there is one thing this Washington team has proven, however, it's that you should never count them out.

Here's how the Capitals were able to shock the hockey world and upset the Lightning.

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Need to Know: Redskins' Jay Gruden and Alex Smith from the podium

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Associated Press

Need to Know: Redskins' Jay Gruden and Alex Smith from the podium

Here is what you need to know on this Thursday, May 24, 64 days before the Washington Redskins start training camp.  

What Jay Gruden and Alex Smith had to say from the podium

After yesterday’s OTA practice, Alex Smith and Jay Gruden took the podium. Here are some of their quotes and my comments on them:

Smith was asked about getting together with his new teammates:

So I think every guy these last two days has enjoyed just getting back out there and losing yourself in the game, right? To be limited, it does make you miss it, and I think it makes you appreciate it, so that’s been nice. 

Comment: This is a guy who loves football and everything that goes with it. Smith would start playing games tomorrow if they were scheduled.

Gruden was asked how Smith has looked in these first two days of OTAs:

He’s got good command of the offense already. Great command in the huddle. He’s just getting a feel for the receivers, the players around him, how we call things, but overall, the first two days, I would say I’m very pleased with his quick progression and learning. I knew that wouldn’t be an issue with as much as he’s played in a similar-style system.

Comment: It did seem that Smith was in sync with his receivers, Jamison Crowder in particular. He and Paul Richardson connected on a deep pass after giving each other a look at the line of scrimmage. The encouraging thing is that he is coming from a similar offensive system, so the learning curve should not be too long. 

Smith had a great analogy when asked about similarities to the offenses he has run:

Both from West Coast worlds, so it’s kind of like they are all Latin-based languages, you know, but they are not the same. There are some similarities, structure of the playbook, of how we call things, things like that. There are a lot of similarities but it’s not the same language. I guess that’s the best analogy I can make

Comment: If terminology is the biggest obstacle for Smith to overcome it will be a smooth transition for him. 

Gruden was impressed with the running backs. 

“I’ll tell you what, just today in general, you could see the competition. You could see Rob Kelley step up. Samaje Perine’s had a couple big days. Byron Marshall, I mean, he had a couple great routes today. He’s running the ball between the tackles. [Kapri] Bibbs had some big runs yesterday. Obviously, Derrius Guice has come in here and fueled the fire a little bit.

Comment: I think that the Redskins are going to have to release some good running backs. Rob Kelly never really earned the nickname “Fat Rob” but he looked particularly lean and quick running the ball. He wants nothing to do with being on the roster bubble. Marshall moved quickly and showed his speed. Although Gruden wouldn’t say it, Guice clearly was the best of the bunch; his ability to change direction while maintaining his speed will serve him well. It must be noted that they are not in pads and not getting tackled so more definitive opinions will have to wait until we are in Richmond for a few days. 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCS and on Instagram @RichTandler

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Timeline  

Days until:

—Minicamp (6/12) 19
—Training camp starts (7/26) 64
—Preseason opener @ Patriots (8/9) 78

The Redskins last played a game 144 days ago. They will open the 2018 NFL season at the Cardinals in 108 days. 

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