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Monday Morning Optimist: I’m done defending Ron Rivera

The Carolina Panthers head coach has finally outrun my patience.

Cincinnati Bengals v Carolina Panthers Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Ron Rivera is going on eight years of trying to establish the run in the Carolinas and it is past time he gave it a rest. If I thought he knew who I was then I would think he opened the game yesterday with five straight runs just to spite me. This is the part in the Optimist where I am supposed to point to the Panthers’ 3-2 record. I should say that there is still plenty of season left and that the Panthers are only getting healthier as they approach the meat of their divisional schedule. All of that is true. But can you really look at the rest of the schedule and tell me you trust Rivera to lead the Panthers into the playoffs?

I have long been critical of Ron Rivera’s conservative decision making as head coach of the Panthers. I have also long been one of his biggest supporters. He has led the Panthers to their best successes. Records of 12-4, 15-1, and 11-5 are no accidents in the NFL. That they haven’t had those successes in back to back seasons was always, to my eyes, a testament to how close Rivera is to being great and not damning evidence of his flaws.

I started a weekly column on this blog to point out the critical moments in games where he routinely and intentionally makes choices that lessen the Panthers chances of winning football games. These are moments that we have all seen game in and game out since his first season here. He doesn’t do this because he wants to lose, just as I didn’t point out the errors because I wanted him gone. He did what he thought was right. I wrote because I believed he could be better. We were both wrong.

We can stop pretending now. Rivera will only ever make the playoffs in the NFL on the strength of a great quarterback performing Sisyphean tasks. He is a brilliant coach. His teams are good. His decisions are bad. I have said time and again that punting a ball at midfield on 4th and 1 with Cam Newton as your quarterback should be counted against the Panthers as a turnover. Yet that is exactly what Rivera elected to do in the first quarter yesterday. The Panthers might have been able to overcome three turnovers in the first half but four was too many.

I won’t ban the first person who jumps in the comments to tell me I am overreacting “because we have a winning record,” but I will think about it. If that’s the level of analysis you are looking for then I invite you to read a box score and get on with your morning. Numbers can be informative but they are not, in football, determinative. Not until the end of a season at least. The Panthers are 3-2. They are winning more games than they are losing, but they are not playing winning football. They are playing the same brand of listless, passive ball that Rivera praises every time he is in front of the press. The win-loss record says more about the teams the Panthers have played than it does about them.

The Panthers began their second drive against Washington backed up into their own end zone. Their play-calling in this scenario was as obvious as it was ineffective. It also allowed Washington to build a multiple score lead and is a prime example of where playing it safe fails. Every defense in the NFL knows those first two runs are coming from these Panthers. The whole field was behind them, but they knew they didn’t have to defend it.

Newton, meanwhile, was unleashed in the second half against a Washington defense that knew he had to score. He completed seven straight passes to put eight points on the board. It’s ten straight passes if you include the next drive. It would have been 15 consecutive completions if Greg Olsen hadn’t forgotten where the sidelines were during his rehab.

The Panthers don’t reach for a game until it is almost out of reach. That is by design. They don’t risk losing games, but they also don’t risk winning them. That doesn’t leave them capable of overcoming a comedy of errors such as yesterday’s first half. Again, that is by design. The coaching staff has spent what is going on eight years now making it painfully clear that they only want to win football games on their clearly defined terms.

The NFL is designed by rule to promote the success and safety of quarterbacks and wide receivers. Throwing the football and scoring points are not in Rivera’s terms. He calls a game like he values the clock more than the scoreboard and with that valuation he has taken the quarterback equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci back to the stone age and is now forcing him to advocate for square wheels.

Look back to what the Panthers were able to do on their second half drives. These were not garbage time possessions. This was a close game. Washington was not surrendering the field to slowly burn the clock. Cam took it anyway. Imagine an offense where that is the game plan and not the emergency plan. If you want optimism from this team then start there.

Cam is a great quarterback, but save your optimism for his next coach. Rivera will never run that offense. Rivera doesn’t want that offense. He has spent the better part of eight seasons trying to establish the run in a league that nakedly favors the pass.

I’m not saying Rivera is stupid. I have the utmost respect for his intelligence. I don’t respect his commitment to the football he was taught when he was younger over the lessons that football is constantly trying to teach him today. He is absolutely capable of learning. But he has proven that he won’t. Instead, he inhabits that fiercely human flaw that so defines our era: an implacable faith in his own opinions over a preponderance of evidence to the contrary.