The Carolina Panthers are in a must-win situation as they approach the final two weeks of the season. The team is in the hunt for the NFC South Division title, although the rival Saints have the inside track on that crown. Carolina can also earn a wild-card berth in the playoffs as early as this weekend. Meanwhile, the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons are looking to leapfrog the Panthers in the NFC South and playoff pecking order.
All of that, however, is far down the list of things that the media wanted to know about when Panthers head coach Ron Rivera met with the media on Monday of game week.
Rivera spoke for eight minutes, 36 seconds. It wasn’t until the 7:42 mark, when the press conference was nearly 91 percent over, that anyone mentioned a player by name.
Instead, Rivera was asked about owner Jerry Richardson, the potential sale of the team, whether he’d spoken to Richardson, what he’d said to the players about the Sports Illustrated story detailing the owner’s misdeeds with company employees and whether he’d ever personally witnessed any of the alleged sexual or racial harassment.
Needless to say, the Panthers’ ownership situation is a substantial distraction as the team enters the home stretch.
“I think, as we go forward, it’s important to remember that we’re here to play football,” Rivera said.
It’s the same message he delivered to the team after Richardson announced his intention to sell the team following the season.
“Not to discount the serious nature of these allegations,” Rivera said. “For us and what we do here, we’re here to play football. I think it’s important to remember that. These allegations don’t change what we do. We just have to go out and focus on getting ready for Tampa Bay.”
Distractions are nothing new for the team. This year alone, the team has dealt with replacing its general manager shortly before the start of preseason practice, an injury to tight end Greg Olsen that kept him out for much of the year, offensive statements by quarterback Cam Newton in response to a question from a female reporter, the midseason trade of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and the four-game PED suspension of defensive end Charles Johnson.
“I don’t know how much difference this is from some of the other things we’ve dealt with,” Rivera said.
Like most of those other situations, Rivera counseled his players that the less speculation they did about the future of Richardson and the team, the better.
“I told the guys I didn’t want a lot of information out there,” he said.
Of course, the ownership drama isn’t the only outside distraction that could derail Carolina’s playoff run.
Later in the day, Pro-Bowl linebacker Thomas Davis was suspended for the final two games of the regular season, as punishment for a helmet-to-helmet hit that knocked Packers wide receiver Davante Adams out of Sunday’s game.
The Davis hit and the possibility he would miss time was the only subject other than the Richardson situation that Rivera was asked about.
Davis was penalized for the hit, which was ripped by Green Bay after the game.
“From the reaction on the sideline a lot of the guys felt it was a dirty hit,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
“I think it was an unnecessary hit,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “So I am disappointed by that. (Davis is) a repeat offender so I am sure that the league will deal with him according to that.”
The length of the suspension was a surprise, and Davis intends to appeal in the hopes of reducing it to a one-game punishment. That would allow him to return for the season-ending game at Atlanta.
“If you see Thomas’ reaction, you know it wasn’t intentional to hit him that way,” Rivera said. “It was intentional — he wanted to block him. I just take it from the way he reacted he did not intend to hit him high or in the head. Unfortunately, that was the result.”
Rivera met with the media before the suspension was announced by the league, but he seemed to think that Davis’ behavior after the hit would help prove his intentions were pure.
“The intent was not there,” Rivera said. “There wasn’t any showboating or taunting. In fact, I know, on the bench, he was upset about it.”
As the Panthers begin the crucial two-week stretch to end the season, it appears they’ll be without Davis for at least the first game. Just one more distraction in a blizzard of them that rivals last week’s snow game in Buffalo.