The case for Ron Rivera: How's this: After a 1-3 start, the Panthers not only reeled off eight straight wins -- including victories over the 49ers and Patriots -- but finished the regular season on an 11-1 run, earning the NFC South title and a first-round playoff bye.
There's more: In Rivera's first two seasons, he went 6-10 and 7-9. Back in August, when most of us assumed that the Panthers were in for another losing campaign, there was speculation that Rivera would be fired after the season -- if not sooner. The Panthers hired a new general manager last offseason and it's not uncommon for GMs to hand-pick their head coaches. Rivera made that a moot point thanks to Cam Newton blossoming into a legit franchise quarterback coupled with a tenacious, young defense.
The case against Ron Rivera: While the Panthers made the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, they seemed unprepared for their rematch with the 49ers. Rivera even admitted that his team "lost our composure a couple times." Also not helping: Whenever Rivera has more than a week to prepare for a game -- whether it's the season opener, coming off an in-season bye or a playoff bye -- he's 0-7. That's hard to explain away.
Still, despite the divisional round loss, nobody saw the Panthers' turnaround coming. We're talking about the type of success that leads to fantastic nicknames, and in our mind that's worth something.
Why Rivera is our choice: It would have been easy for Rivera to enter the 2013 season working from the premise that he was a lame-duck coach. And after four months of going through the motions, GM Dave Gettleman would send Rivera on his way and promptly install his guy.
Instead, Riverboat Ron was born, Newton played out of his mind and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott made his unit one of the league's best. There were teams with bigger turnarounds but on a week-in, week-out basis, none were more consistent than the Panthers, according to Football Outsiders.
Will Rivera win the hardware? There's plenty of competition. Andy Reid, who took the Chiefs from 2-14 to 11-5, is an obvious choice. So is Bruce Arians, who traded for Carson Palmer and turned the Cardinals into a 10-win team. And Chip Kelly led the Eagles to 10 wins a season after they limped to a 4-12 record and ran Reid out of town. Then there are the more conventional candidates: Pete Carroll, Bill Belichick, John Fox and Jim Harbaugh. But of all the choices, no one had a more surprising run than Rivera, especially given where the Panthers were a month into the season.
Others receiving votes:
Ron Rivera: 27 (3)
Andy Reid: 18 (1)
Bruce Arians: 14
Pete Carroll: 13 (1)
Bill Belichick: 10
Chip Kelly: 9
Mike McCoy: 5 (1)
Jim Harbaugh: 5 (1)
Rex Ryan: 3
John Fox: 1