NEW ORLEANS – The future of the Carolina Panthers appears bright.
The immediate future is a bit blurry.
After the Panthers won their fourth consecutive game and their fifth in six games to end the season Sunday, head coach Ron Rivera stationed himself at the entrance to the triumphant locker room.
One by one, Rivera offered his players an appreciative hug as they passed by, looking like a proud papa but pursing his lips - trying to stave off the emotion of the moment.
Once the doors swung closed, Rivera gathered the team in a circle around him and thanked them for their unwavering effort in the face of a season they had known for a while wouldn't include a playoff appearance.
Rivera then tried to escape the huddle, emotions welling to the surface, only to be dragged back into the middle for defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to present him with the game ball.
"We just put our arms around him and told him how much we cared about him and thanked him for his leadership," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "None of us know what is going to happen, but it was great to win.
"We didn't make any decisions easy, that's for sure."
The decision at hand is whether Rivera will return as head coach for a third season. That's been in question since the Panthers parted ways with longtime general manager Marty Hurney in October after five games.
More often than not, a new general manager equals a new coach, but Rivera has been given the opportunity to show why he doesn't believe that's the way to go in this case. Rivera's understanding is that Panthers Owner/Founder Jerry Richardson will be the one who decides his future.
"I will sit down eventually with Mr. Richardson, and we will evaluate this season," Rivera said. "The process is going to begin when we get back to Charlotte. Mr. Richardson has been fair, and I appreciate the opportunity he has given me. We'll see how things unfold."
A reporter then asked Rivera if he felt like he'd return as head coach.
"Well," he said, "I want to be back, so we'll see."
Rivera indicated after Hurney's departure that things needed to be "trending up" for him to get another year. That didn't happen at first as Rivera followed a 1-4 start with another 1-4 stretch.
The last six weeks, however, have been a decidedly different story.
The Panthers ran the table outside of a loss to an emotionally inspired Kansas City Chiefs team, beating a pair of NFC South foes along the way to finish second in the division.
The four-game winning streak to cap the season started with a victory over an Atlanta Falcons team that had lost just one game. It ended Sunday with a road victory over a New Orleans Saints squad that had won seven of its last 11 games.
"The best thing we could do as a team to show how we felt about him and his coaching staff was with our play on the field," tight end Greg Olsen said. "For us to finish the season the way we did shows how much faith we have in Coach Rivera and in this organization and the direction we're heading."
The decision could go in either direction. Rivera is 13-19 in his two seasons, but the Panthers head to the offseason playing the best football of his tenure. Carolina has struggled to win close games under Rivera; however, there were no nail-biters in the last four, because the Panthers were significantly better than their opponents.
Again Sunday, Rivera's players put their best foot forward on his behalf. Regardless of what happens over the next few days, that means the world to him.
"Those guys showed up every day and worked, did the things that we asked and did them very well," Rivera said. "It's a good group of men, it really is, and they deserve to have won four in a row like they did.
"I'm very proud of them."