Rivera happy Panthers practicing, but he'd like to coach them

FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- 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.'

Slumdog millionaires

During the lockout, players -- forced to work out on their own at non-team facilities -- have missed the little things that normally are done for them, Steve Wyche writes. More ...

"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 league-imposed 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 might 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 the Panthers' 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 just 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 believes the offensive line will be OK -- as long as right tackle Jeff Otah comes back from his knee injury. Rivera is 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 be re-signed. Rivera also wants to sign a veteran to work with Newton and second-year pro Jimmy Clausen.

And Rivera acknowledged Carolina 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 Smith 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."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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