SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Panthers coach Ron Rivera isn't feeling any additional pressure this season to win.
That's somewhat surprising since he has a losing record and his team has been awful in close games during his first two seasons in Carolina.
But Rivera told The Associated Press he isn't worrying about something that's out of his control — pointing out that Lovie Smith was fired by the Chicago Bears despite his team finishing 10-6 last year.
"It doesn't matter where you finish, there's a chance you are going to get let go," Rivera said. "So every season you coach there's pressure. This is a production-based business. This business is about now. I get that. I understand that.
"All I can control is making sure our guys go out and play hard, play strong and win games."
Rivera's Panthers teams are 13-19, including 2-12 in games decided by seven points or less.
Still, Rivera said team owner Jerry Richardson is in his corner.
The coach said Richardson didn't issue a playoff ultimatum or tell him he had win a certain number of games to keep his job when the two met after the 2012 season ended.
"I don't feel the pressure, I really don't, and part of that is because of the support I've got from Mr. Richardson and the honesty he showed me," Rivera said before the team wrapped up training camp at Wofford College.
Richardson declined to comment for this story and has never publicly discussed his decision to retain Rivera, whose teams have finished 6-10 and 7-9 in their first two seasons. Those are the same records Bill Belichick complied in his first two years as an NFL coach with the Cleveland Browns.
Rivera admits the transition from NFL defensive coordinator to a head coach was much more difficult than he thought it would be.
"Sometimes, honestly, it's a slap in the face," Rivera said. "It wakes you up. All of sudden, no matter what books you have read or what manuals you may follow, you aren't prepared for it. At least for me, I don't believe I was completely prepared to be a head coach as I thought I was."
He said getting to know the players' strengths and putting together a cohesive coaching staff were two of his toughest challenges. Learning to make game-time decisions on the fly has been another adjustment.
However, Rivera may have figured that one out.
After the Panthers got off to a rocky 1-6 start last year, Rivera went through a period of self-evaluation looking for areas to improve on as a coach. The one thing he learned during that process — and implemented over the final nine games when the Panthers went 6-3 — was to trust his instincts.
"Sometimes you have to take everything into account," Rivera said. "Maybe by the book is better or maybe, it's hey, my gut tells me to do this. What I've learned is I've got to take every situation as its own and not say, 'Oh, I have to go by the book.'"
He hopes his new approach will help the Panthers in close games. The losses continued to haunt him on the morning players reported to training camp.
"I'm in the shower and the water is pouring over my head and suddenly I start thinking, 'You've got to be kidding me. We lost four games last year by one yard — one stinking yard.' Can you imagine that?" Rivera said.
He was referring to close defeats to Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle and Tampa Bay.
The losing is also taking its toll on the entire organization.
Panthers first-year general manager Dave Gettleman recently acknowledged it's time for the Panthers to win. They haven't been to the playoffs since 2008.
"It's not just an important season for coach (Rivera), there are a lot of guys that this season is important to," quarterback Cam Newton said of the urgency to win.
Rivera understands that everyone needs to get better, including himself. So he contacted 11 current or former NFL coaches this offseason for tips on how he could improve.
The one he relies on the most for advice is Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, a close friend and former NFL teammate with the Bears. They also worked together on Andy Reid's staff in Philadelphia and still talk about once a week.
"Yeah, we talk through all of that, how to deal with situations and players and management, the whole deal," Frazier said. "We talk through all of that."
Frazier, who once urged Rivera to get into the coaching business after he retired from the NFL, believes Rivera has all of the qualities it takes to be a successful head coach.
"If you have a person you can trust, you have a chance to be a very good leader — and I think Ron is one of those people," Frazier said.
Rivera has no idea if things will work out for him in Carolina — but he's not scared of the future.
"The lessons I've learned the last two years have made me a better coach," Rivera said. "But now let's find out. The proof will be in the pudding."
AP Pro Football Writer Dave Campbell in Mankato, Minn., contributed to this report.
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