In the Georgia Dome on Sunday there were many defining moments that led to the Carolina Panthers losing by two points after seemingly having the Atlanta Falcons dead to rights. Today, however, it wont be Cam Newton's third down fumble, or Haruki Nakamura's poor play that will dominate the airwaves of sports radio today, but instead the decision by head coach Ron Rivera to punt on a 4th-and-1 situation late in the game, rather than try to gain the yard, and win the game.
It will be discussed whether 'most coaches' would have punted in the same situation, but that is of no consequence. It doesn't matter what another coach would have done, all that matters is what Ron Rivera decided to do; ultimately he made the right call, even given the loss.
Football fans love risks, until they don't work. Then all that's talked about is how the coach had no faith in his defense, that a short field sealed a victory, and how it's all the head coach's fault. There were many key factors that led to the decision to punt, and when looked at in it's entirety you see the full picture; one where punting was the only option.
The defense were teeing off
Charles Johnson and the Panthers' pass rush had Matt Ryan's number on Sunday. They seemed to have his cadence down, and when they knew the Falcons were passing they were shredding the offensive line. Given the Falcons had no timeouts left, and needed to drive at least 80-yards on a punt (assuming a touchback) this was a no-brainer. Leave it up to the front which had gotten seven sacks to have more opportunities on downs where everyone in the stadium knew they were passing.
Let Ryan beat you, not Turner
On Sunday the Carolina Panthers had an answer for Matt Ryan. He got his yards, and was effective, but leading into that final drive they had held him to under 300 yards passing, and had picked him off once. Conversely the Panthers had no answer for Michael Turner, who had over 100 yards rushing, and was averaging 7.9 yards per carry. Given the way the day was going against the run if the Panthers failed to pick up the 1st down on 4th-and-1 it would have taken just two Turner carries to set up the field goal.
Carolina's secondary is bad, the Panthers critical down offense is worse
There is an ideal the Panthers offense is held to where they can go little wrong, but what's failed to be talked about is how abysmal they are on critical downs. This season Carolina are 16th in the NFL in 3rd down conversion percentage at 38%, and Cam Newton has the lowest QB rating in the league on third down. In 4th down conversion percentage the Panthers rank tied last in the league, with 0%, failing on their two attempts.
Compound this with the fact your running QB just fumbled the ball, and why exactly do you want to go back to that well? It's far too easy to say it shows a lack of faith in your offense, but the flip-side is that by not punting you show no faith in your defense to stop the Falcons on a long field.
Use the RBs you say? Right now the run game for the Panthers is all-or-nothing, and that's not good in critical situations. They're not getting a consistent 2-3 yards a carry, but rather it's nothing (or a loss), or a 10+ yard gain. Big plays is what this offense is built for, but it doesn't help when you need a critical yard.
You drafted Brad Nortman for these situations
Allowing a team to drive 99 yards is an outlier, even for a team whose secondary struggles as much as the Carolina Panthers. The reason the organization took Nortman over someone more highly vaunted like Drew Butler was his accuracy, and he showed it yet again on Sunday. The punt went as well as it could have been imagined, the defense just broke down on two plays.
As we sit here on Monday morning and play armchair coach it's far too easy to type 'I would have done x', or 'I was screaming ___ at my TV!'. There's a reason you are screaming at the TV, and not into a headset on the sideline. Coaches take what the game is giving them, and on Sunday the game the Panthers were being given was a dominant defensive line, an offense that was struggling on the hard yards, and a punter who has excellent accuracy.
A punt is a good play, a punt is the only play in that situation.