Skip to main content

'Riverboat' Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers vivify NFC South race

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.

And sure enough, the Panthers (5-3) were well on their way to a 34-10 victory, their fourth consecutive triumph (and fifth in six games) since their embattled head coach stopped playing it safe.

"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.

The playoff picture

How would your team's prospects look if the season ended today? See where each team stands in the playoff picture midway through the season. **More ...**

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."

One promising sign is that the Panthers -- from their young, talented quarterback to established veterans like Kalil, fiery receiver Steve Smith and linebacker Thomas Davis -- are holding themselves to a higher standard.

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.' "

Carolina complied, outscoring the fading, injury-ravaged Falcons (2-6) by a 20-0 margin after the break to move within one game of the first-place New Orleans Saints (6-2) in the NFC South.

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).

One of those matchups, with the New England Patriots, will pit Rivera opposite three-time Super Bowl winner Bill Belichick, the crown prince of fourth-down gamblers.

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:

1) Seattle Seahawks: Was the fact that the Seahawks trailed the Bucs by three touchdowns at one point Sunday an indication of their inadequacy -- or was their completion of the biggest comeback in franchise history an illustration of their irrepressibility?

2) Kansas City Chiefs: Who needs an offense?

3) Denver Broncos: For all the times John Fox's critics have blasted him for being too conservative, can we all stop and give thanks that he played it safe and went to the hospital after feeling lightheaded on the golf course last Saturday?

4) Indianapolis Colts: Does the T.Y. in T.Y. Hilton stand for *Thank You*?

5) New England Patriots: Did Tom Brady trade for Tom Brady as his fantasy quarterback last week -- and was he inspired by Ben Roethlisberger's assessment of his abilities?

6) San Francisco 49ers: Will Aldon Smith resemble his pre-rehab self when he returns to active duty -- and will he quickly earn his way back into the starting lineup?

7) New Orleans Saints: How clutch was Gayle Benson's fumble recovery at MetLife Stadium on Sunday -- and how frustrated was Rob Ryan that it was the Saints' only takeaway?

8) Green Bay Packers: When Bob McGinn -- a truly outstanding football journalist -- wrote a column headlined "Packers could win without Aaron Rodgers," were his editors tempted to add, "if they were playing the Jaguars"?

9) Cincinnati Bengals: How phenomenal was Carlos Dunlap's downfield strip of Dolphins running back Lamar Miller last Thursday night -- and how many big plays will Bengals defenders have to make to compensate for the loss of Geno Atkins?

10) Detroit Lions: Hey, Nate Burleson -- what's wrong with a little feast on our time?

11) Chicago Bears: At nearly $5 million per sack thus far in 2013, is it fair to say Julius Peppers is a tad overpaid?

12) Dallas Cowboys: If Jason Wittenloves playing with Dez Bryanton Sundays, how much more would he have loved playing with Michael Irvin?

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air the New York Jets' 26-20 win over the New Orleans Saints from Week 9 on Tuesday, Nov. 5 at 2 p.m. ET.

13) New York Jets: Think Chris Ivory was slightly motivated to torment his former team Sunday -- and if he runs that hard every week, how much better will Geno Smith's life be?

14) Carolina Panthers: How much did that Raider Paranoia rub off on Mike Mitchell during his four seasons in Oakland -- and does he actually believe that when he's fined, the money goes "right in Roger's pocket"?

15) Tennessee Titans: When Chris Johnson said last week that "if the running game doesn't get going, this is going to be another non-playoff team," were his coaches and teammates listening?

16) Miami Dolphins: Isn't what happens in Vegas supposed to stay in Vegas -- and can you kindly forgive me for resorting to humor in the face of a serious and combustible situation?

17) Arizona Cardinals:How happy should Steve Keim be with his first draft as a general manager, even without the services of his top pick?

18) San Diego Chargers: After Sunday, will there be another remake of The Longest Yard -- based on the play-calling of Mike McCoy?

19) Cleveland Browns: If Joe Haden had claimed he was misquoted after riling up the Ravens last week, would his "Ravens of old" thoughts have been displayed upon the walls of the Browns' facility alongside this guy's?

20) Baltimore Ravens: Are Ray Lewis' dogs in the house -- or are his former teammates in the doghouse?

21) Buffalo Bills: Who's more starved for attention -- the Bills' receivers or Doug Marrone's dog?

22) Philadelphia Eagles: Did Nick Foles seriously throw seventouchdown passes against the Raiders on Sunday -- and after Riley Cooper caught three of them, will Kenny Chesney claim the receiver as a fan once again?

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air the Washington Redskins' 30-24 win over the San Diego Chargers from Week 9 on Tuesday, Nov. 5 at 3:30 p.m. ET.

23) St. Louis Rams: What was more of a missed opportunity Sunday: Benny Cunningham's contact-free red-zone fumble, or the Rams failing to wear blue-and-white throwbacks?

24) Washington Redskins: If a man scores three touchdowns in the middle of an NFL stadium and they generate zero fantasy points (because nobody had him on his/her roster), do they make a sound?

25) Houston Texans: In light of the scary situation surrounding Gary Kubiak's health issues, can we place a moratorium on using the word "collapse" to describe the Texans' defeat to the Colts?

26) Oakland Raiders: Was defensive coordinator Jason Tarver tempted to make an obscene gesture to himself during Sunday's 49-20 defeat to the Eagles?

27) Atlanta Falcons: How did it go so wrong, so fast?

28) New York Giants: What's more surprising: that injured running back Andre Brown downloaded an iPhone app to count down the days to his return, or that there's actually an app called "Unleash The Beast, Thoroughbred Run Wild"?

29) Pittsburgh Steelers: After Sunday's record-setting debacle in Foxborough, will Mike Tomlinbe singing this '80s staple?

30) Minnesota Vikings: Are the wheels coming off -- and should Leslie Frazier think about selling *his* house, too?

31) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: What was more short-lived in Seattle: Courtney Love's music career after Kurt Cobain's death, or the Bucs' three-touchdown lead over the Seahawks?

32) Jacksonville Jaguars: When receiver Justin Blackmon issued a statement in the wake of his indefinite suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy that he was "truly sorry," was he tempted to add, "and so is my team"?

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.