In my almost 20 years as a Panthers fan I have seen a number of good and bad coaches. There have been sideline generals who have shown prowess (John Fox in 2003) and impotence (John Fox in most other years).
These past 5 games have been a fantastic ride of victories over 4 subpar teams and a super impressive victory of a slightly overrated 49ers team (their vaunted team defense is ranked 11th by Football Outsiders). I am firmly on the Panthers bandwagon, have been since 1996 (I was 7 in 1995…) but I only have one foot off the dock on Riverboat Ron’s ship.
Ron Rivera was a fantastic player and a remarkably good defensive coordinator for both the Bears and Chargers. His handle of the offense and of basic NFL in-game strategy however had many (including me) calling for his ouster last season. Rivera was one of the most popular names on many preseason lists of possible First Coach Fired. Two weeks into the season it looked like Rivera had about 7 more days with a job before his certain firing during the Panther’s week 4 Bye. A stunning game in week 3 saved him, and here we are two months later and Rivera seems to have a strangle hold on his job.
In Blackjack if the dealer is showing a 6, and you have a 12, the book says you should stay. Whether or not you hit, you will win at times and you will lose at times, but the "correct" play is to stay with a 12 against a 6. In the long run, if you make the correct play you win more often than you lose.
The recent groundswell of support for Rivera is the same as hitting on 12, and winning. It is an example of relying on the outcome to make a judgment, instead of relying on the process that got them there.
Let me know if this sounds familiar, late in the game the Panthers face 4th and short clinging to a 1 point lead on the plus side of the field. Ron Rivera decides to send Brad Nortman on to punt, even though all the previous rushes on that same drive had gained at least 3 yards, and he has the best short yardage QB in the league behind center. Nortman uncorks a beauty pinning the opposition at the 1 yard line and the Panthers defense takes over.
Yes, that’s what happened against the 49ers on Sunday. The outcome was a Panthers victory. That’s also what happened on September 30th 2012 in the Georgia Dome. The outcome (I hope I don’t have to remind you) was Roddy White getting behind the Panthers defense, setting up a game winning field goal. At the time, Grantland’s Bill Barnwell laid out exactly why the decision was a poor one.
Riverboat Ron’s new moniker comes because he has been going for it on 4th down more often since the bye. Much has been made of the Panther’s going 5/6 on 4th down in the four games before the 9ers . It’s easy to go for it on 4th down when you’re up, or it’s very early in the game, but the real coaching decisions are when the game is close and late. Gambling is fun (my bank account will tell you that) but running a football team is not akin to gambling. There are statistics and probabilities that need to be taken into account. This decision to get conservative late in the 49ers game is akin to Ron Rivera of 2012.
I hope to everything that is holy that the winning streak continues on Monday Night Football (and I think the power running game, and insane defense should be a good matchup against the Pats). Rivera should be lauded for the fantastic way the defense has played; they looked remarkable against the 9ers. I am not ready, however, to forget that Falcons game, or the Bills game from earlier this year. Color me skeptical on the era of Riverboat Ron Rivera