ORLANDO – Free agency can be hard on a head coach, especially in Ron Rivera's case, where several players from a division championship team were not retained.
But that's the business of the NFL. The decisions aren't personal, even if the player-coach relationships undeniably are.
"There has been change," Rivera said at the NFL Annual Meeting, "and change is all part of it."
The most notable change came in the release of wide receiver Steve Smith – a move that was hard on Rivera "because of what Steve has meant to me personally." But it was a difficult move that Rivera understood, like all of the offseason decisions the Panthers have made.
Wide receivers Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon signed elsewhere as unrestricted free agents. So too did cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, safety Mike Mitchell and linebacker Jordan Senn.
"Those are the guys that you are really, truly appreciative for. They buy into what you're doing and carry the moniker," Rivera said. "To be honest, I'm sad to lose them all, but as (general manager) Dave (Gettleman) and I talked about, these are the business decisions of football.
"You have to make decisions that are for the best, even if they aren't necessarily the most popular."
That's what Gettleman has done this offseason, and Rivera wholeheartedly believes those changes are good for the franchise.
"Dave did a heck of a job, and he took a hit for us in the public," Rivera said. "People need to understand that what Dave did is what he believed was best. There was nothing personal about this. We made the decision to let people go, and that's hard. I'm a little disappointed that so many people reacted the way they did without truly understanding that there are a lot of things that go into this. I hope people understand that this is a process.
"If you do things the right way and do them for the right reasons, you have a chance going forward. That, to me, is what we've done."
In response to the departures, the Panthers have acquired replacements that fit Rivera's system.
At the start of free agency, Carolina immediately targeted wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery and safety Roman Harper – two productive veterans.
"Jerricho was somebody that we targeted early," Rivera said. "We signed Cotchery to be the veteran guy leading that group of receivers, helping to develop the young guys. We also signed him because we believe he has got a few really good years left.
"Harper was one of those guys that fit the bill right from the beginning for us. I love how smart he is and how physical he is. He's a good blitzer. He knows our division and he knows one of our primary opponents offensively and defensively."
Those two additions addressed obvious needs, but Rivera made it clear that the Panthers are far from finished as the NFL Draft nears in May.
"I think we are headed in the direction of being a better team," Rivera said. "There are some things that we have to do. We still have time in free agency, time in the draft coming up. And we have some guys on the roster that we are hoping will take the next step and develop."