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In My Opinion

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Panthers coach Ron Rivera is in serious trouble – but firing him right now is not a good idea

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/09/15/20/07/s0UMr.Em.138.jpeg|413
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera walks along the team's sideline watching the Buffalo Bills and their fans celebrate a touchdown pass reception by wide receiver Stevie Johnson during fourth quarter action at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, NY on Sunday.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/09/15/22/10/L0C3s.Em.138.jpeg|409
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera walks to the team's sideline after checking on (30) safety Charles Godfrey who was injured during third quarter action vs the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, NY on Sunday, September 15, 2013. The Bills defeated the Panthers 24-23. Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Ron Rivera’s approval rating among Carolina Panthers fans plummeted to an all-time low Sunday, as the team came from ahead to lose yet again, 24-23 at Buffalo.

An unscientific Charlotte Observer online poll asking the question whether Panthers owner Jerry Richardson should fire Rivera this week provoked more than 8,800 responses in 24 hours – and 83 percent of the respondents said “yes.”

I would say “no,” however – not this very second. Firing Rivera may eventually be as inevitable as Buffalo’s 80-yard touchdown drive in the final two minutes to win Sunday. But it would serve no purpose right now except to create more turmoil.

First of all, who would be your interim coach? Do you really think coordinators Sean McDermott or Mike Shula should be running one side of the ball and the whole team, too?

Rivera deserves the New York Giants home game Sunday to get this right. If the Panthers enter the bye week 0-3, there would be more time to think about a change – although it still might not make any sense.

I totally understand the fans’ frustrated reaction to Rivera, though. If the Panthers can’t beat Buffalo and a rookie quarterback, who are they going to beat? Rivera is as nice as they come, but in a bottom-line business he knows how tenuous his employment has become.

It’s commonly thought that Rivera will need to make the playoffs to keep his job past 2013. Although I thought all summer that would happen – hence my 10-6 prediction that might haunt me all fall – it grows ever more unlikely each week.

For his part, Rivera said Monday he wasn’t concerned about his job security and he hadn’t talked to Richardson since the Buffalo game ended. He said he had spoken to general manager Dave Gettleman, but only about the Bills game and potential roster moves.

It was disconcerting to see Rivera pull into the turtle shell again Sunday, along with offensive coordinator Shula, on the Panthers’ final possession.

On third-and-5 from the Buffalo 25, Carolina ran the ball for a third straight time instead of putting it in Cam Newton’s hands with a run-pass option. Then, on fourth-and-1 from the 21, a single yard away from a game-sealing first down, Carolina kicked a field goal to go up six points.

Rivera basically dared Buffalo to go 80 yards in the final 1 minute, 38 seconds against a Panthers secondary so racked with injuries that Carolina had considered moving linebacker Thomas Davis to safety during the game. Then Rivera watched the Bills do just that.

It was the 10th time in Rivera’s 34 games as Carolina’s coach that the Panthers have blown a fourth-quarter lead. That is tied for the most blown fourth-quarter leads in the NFL since the beginning of the 2011 season, with Philadelphia.

Just as disturbingly, Carolina is 2-14 in games decided by seven points or fewer under Rivera.

Rivera has a serious instinctual coaching flaw, one that John Fox shares (but, to be fair, did a better job compensating for in other ways). Rivera rides the brakes when he has a lead. It’s the old “play not to lose” rather than the “play to win” philosophy.

Seattle took the opposite approach on Sept.8 to beat Carolina 12-7. The Seahawks skipped out on obvious running situations on their final drive, running out the game’s last 5:25 in part by throwing the ball four times – fooling the Panthers each time for gains of more than 10 yards.

That was playing to win. The Seahawks put the ball in Russell Wilson’s hands and said, “He’s the best we’ve got. Try to stop him.”

The Panthers should have done that with Newton on Sunday on either third or fourth down, or both. Despite an inconsistent game, Newton remains the team’s best offensive option. And I don’t think Buffalo would have stopped a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1.

Instead, Rivera said of those walking-on-eggshells calls Monday: “At that point in time, this early in the season, I don’t think you throw caution to the wind or play desperate.”

I don’t get the “play desperate” part. Throwing a pass on third-and-5 isn’t desperate. Running Newton on fourth-and-1 isn’t desperate. It’s just another way to go for a win – a risky way, yes, but every play has risk. Letting the game hinge on a Panthers defense with a thrown-together secondary was just a different kind of desperation.

To say Rivera has no guts is ridiculous. The man played linebacker in the NFL. He has guts.

But to say Rivera has made numerous poor decisions at the end of games with his gut – that is obvious. And that is what will get him fired before too long unless he truly learns to throw caution to the wind.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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