CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Ron Rivera is not accustomed to losing.
In his last 11 seasons as an NFL assistant coach, Rivera's teams have finished with winning records 10 times and been to the playoffs nine times.
So a 2-8 record is foreign territory for the Panthers new head coach.
Rivera said "losing, and losing the way we have, is tough." The Panthers have lost several close games and Rivera said, "People struggle with it. I struggle with it."
And his players have noticed.
"I can tell it's eating at him," said wide receiver Steve Smith. "Just in the things he says. He's frank. He's straight. But he's also giving guys nuggets to understand that hey, this isn't the norm. This isn't something you need to accept. I respect that and I think that's a nice change of pace."
Rivera knew this wasn't going to be easy.
He inherited a team that finished an NFL-worst 2-14 last season.
Losing 12 players to season-ending injuries hasn't helped matters. Neither has the extended NFL lockout, which robbed his young team of 24 offseason practices and numerous hours of meeting room time which could have been devoted to learning the new offensive and defensive schemes.
"I knew what I was getting into," Rivera said. "I knew this was going to be hard. I didn't come in with rose-colored glasses and say, hey, we're going to be 7-3. I would love to be that. I think we have the players that can be like that. But we have a lot to learn."
Rivera said the toughest thing has been maintaining his composure.
He's a perfectionist, so when he sees a third-year player lose leverage on a block or a defensive back that's out of place on a big pass play it drives him crazy.
"There are obviously moments where I've expressed my displeasure and frustration with it," Rivera said. "But the truth of the matter is if I take this learning experience and grow from it then it's not lost a season."
And that's what Rivera's focus is right now.
He wants this team to finish strong and carry some momentum into next season. He wants there to be some excitement when players return in 2012 knowing the future in Carolina is positive.
"We've got six weeks left and I don't want to say this is a rebuilding portion of it, but we have six weeks left and can impact what's going to happen in the future," Rivera said.
The Panthers have a lot of positives going for them.
They can be thankful for rookie quarterback Cam Newton, knowing that they have solidified the most important position on the field with a dynamic player who, much like his coach, loathes losing.
Like Rivera, Newton has a strong history of winning, earning national championships at Blinn Junior College and Auburn the last two seasons.
"I was teasing with coach Rivera today and said, 'How do you make a lion a house pet?' You don't do it," Newton said. "That lion is never going to get used to being a house pet. And that's the way I feel. I've never lost as much as I have this year and I'm not going to get used to this feeling. I won't."
Newton raised the expectation level early on for the Panthers.
He did it by throwing for 422 yards against Arizona Cardinals in the season opener and nearly leading his team to an upset in Week 2 against the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
While the bar might have been set a little high, Rivera said he didn't mind.
"Nope, because we are good enough," Rivera said.
Rivera has his guy moving forward in Newton.
Now he knows the Panthers have to fill in the pieces around him.
The core of the team is under contract and it's now a matter of getting guys healthy for next year and adding some pieces to the puzzle next offseason. In the meantime, younger players are gaining experience this year that Rivera believes that will pay off down the road in terms of the overall team depth.
Tight end Greg Olsen said Rivera is doing "a great job" as coach, but also knows that when push comes to shove that doesn't matter.
In the NFL, there's only one thing that does.
"There are no positives when you lose," Olsen said. "There just aren't. There are no moral victories. It's a results-oriented business and right now the results aren't good."
Rivera doesn't need to be reminded of that. He knows few will remember the shortened offseason or the injuries.
They'll remember wins and losses.
"I'm playing the hand that is dealt me and I'm trying to play it the best that I can," Rivera said. "As we go through this I'm learning a lot about myself, about our coaches, about the players, about the organization. I'm learning how to do things and do them better next season."
At 2-8, that's what the Panthers are playing for.
"I hope this season has given so many people hope of what the Panthers can be," Newton said. "That is what coach Rivera stresses each and every week. You can't just think yeah, we're 2-8 and that's horrible... You have to move on, keep building and control what you can control."
INJURY UPDATED: Panthers tight end Jeremy Shockey returned to practice and will play Sunday against the Colts after missing last week's game against Detroit with bruised ribs. ... Linebackers James Anderson (ankle) and Omar Gaither (knee) and defensive end Charles Johnson (shoulder) sat out practice, but Rivera is optimistic Anderson and Johnson will play. "I'm playing, definitely," Johnson said. ... Linebackers Dan Connor (neck) and Jason Phillips were limited in practice after missing last week.
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