Ron Rivera had a decision to make, and he didn't hesitate: With the Carolina Panthers leading by four points and facing a fourth-and-1 from the Atlanta Falcons' 14-yard line with five minutes left in the first half of Sunday's game at Bank of America Stadium, the third-year head coach confidently kept his offense on the field, displaying the breezy bravado for which he is well-known.
Or, to be accurate: The bravado for which he's been well-known for the past seven weeks.
For the first 34 games of his head-coaching career, Rivera was more conservative than Ronald Reagan -- only with far less success. Yet since experiencing an epiphany following a mid-September defeat in Buffalo that seemed to drive him further into Dead Coach Walking irrelevance, Rivera has been less encumbered by convention than adult-cinema icon Ron Jeremy.
Sure enough, on Sunday, "Riverboat Ron" passed on the easy three points and took a risk, dialing up what turned out to be a perfect call for the situation: Quarterback Cam Newton sold a sublime play-fake to running back Mike Tolbert, rolled to his right and lofted a gentle pass to tight end Greg Olsen, who was wide open at the goal line after simulating a convincing slam block, releasing upfield and slipping outside.
"It's funny, because you're told to 'play it by the book,' but is that truly the book?" Rivera reflected Sunday afternoon after leaving the stadium. "The book says you take the points. But hey, you've got to score touchdowns to win in this league. You can't just sit there and take field goals. Think about it: Who wrote 'The Book'? There is no book."
As he hits the midpoint of his third season in charge of the Panthers, Rivera might be in the process of rewriting his Carolina story, something that seemed highly unlikely a month ago, when NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported that the organization already had begun conducting background checks on possible successors for 2014.
This likely wasn't shocking to Rivera: With his job believed to have been in jeopardy following the 2012 season, he survived to work under a newly hired general manager, Dave Gettleman, which always is a dodgy setup. Having wheezed to 2-8 records in each of his first two campaigns before rallying to finish 6-10 and 7-9, respectively, Rivera knew he had to get out of the gates quickly in 2013 -- and his 1-3 start was not a promising sign.
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Included was that crushing, 24-23, Week 2 defeat to the Bills in which Rivera's careful approach proved disastrous: With Carolina leading by three and facing a fourth-and-1 from the Buffalo 21-yard line with 1:42 remaining, he stayed cautious and called for the field-goal team. Down six, the Bills' EJ Manuel engineered a game-winning touchdown drive that evoked memories of prior blown leads (to the Falcons and Buccaneers in 2012), dropped Rivera's record in games decided by seven points or fewer to 2-14 and caused the coach to reassess his philosophy.
Up to that point, according to the Charlotte Observer, Rivera had been the NFL's second-most conservative coach when it came to attempting fourth-down conversions, trailing only Broncos (and ex-Panthers) coach John Fox. Over the next three games, Rivera went for it five times on fourth down, converting three of those tries, and "Riverboat Ron" was born.
Does the coach embrace his new nickname?
"No, not at all," he said. "Everybody keeps telling me they love the moniker, but I'm not sure I like it. I like 'Calculated-Risk-Taker Ron.' "
Good luck getting that to stick -- though given his recent 5-1 run, with an average victory margin of 24 points in the quintet of winning efforts, Rivera might be acquiring the clout to pull it off.
"We love playing for Ron, and I feel like there's a surge of energy here, and we want to keep it rolling," Panthers veteran center Ryan Kalil said after Sunday's victory. "I just think the team is doing a good job of being resilient in relation to the emotions of the game, and what's happening out on the field. In seasons past, maybe even early this year, it's been easy for us to get too high when we're up and too low when we're down. Now, we're weathering all of that."
On Sunday, after allowing a Falcons touchdown and squandering a scoring opportunity on an end-zone interception by Newton (his second pick of the half after having gone three consecutive games without a turnover), the Panthers were a grumpy bunch as they filed into the locker room with a 14-10 lead over a team that reached last year's NFC Championship Game.
"The first half wasn't really indicative of the way we've been playing football," Rivera said. "Cam got a little anxious and threw a couple of deep balls that were off target, and we missed some opportunities. We still had the lead (at halftime), but a lot of guys were really upset. I said, 'Hey guys -- we're winning, OK? We're winning 14-10, even if it doesn't seem like it.' In that sense, we have evolved nicely."
Said Kalil: "I was kinda hoping for a game like this. These last few weeks, we've gotten up and kept it going. It was nice to go into halftime up four, almost like a tie -- something I don't think we've done this year. I can't think of how many games we've been up in the fourth quarter and let it slip away.
"Ron said, 'Hey, we're winning. Let's not forget that. That's the best shot they've given us. Let's go out and give them a better half.' "
Skeptics will note that the Panthers have yet to beat a team that currently owns a winning record. Truer tests will come in the remaining eight weeks of the regular season, beginning with next Sunday's matchup in San Francisco with the 49ers -- the first of five second-half games against opponents currently north of .500 (including two versus the Saints).
Like Belichick, Rivera's fourth-down approach has been swayed by statistics. Citing a report by a professor at his alma mater, UC Berkeley, Rivera conceded that conventional wisdom surrounding those situations might be flawed.
Anecdotally, it certainly seemed that way Sunday, with Cleveland Browns coach Rob Chudzinski (Rivera's offensive coordinator the previous two seasons in Carolina) closing out a 24-18 victory over the Baltimore Ravens thanks to a late fourth-down conversion, and with beleaguered Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier passing on a chance to go for a fourth-and-5 clincher against the Dallas Cowboys, only to watch Tony Romo engineer a game-winning touchdown drive.
"There's a stats professor at Cal who did a study on fourth down and concluded you're more apt to make it on fourth down than on third down," Rivera said. "So is that the new book? My attitude is, forget 'The Book.' Instead of us having to stop the other team, let's make 'em do the things they have to do to stop us."
And as for that "Riverboat Ron" moniker? My advice to Rivera: Just go with it.
Now, let's take our weekly trip around the league, courtesy of a pecking order that ponders: