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It’s fourth-and-1 for Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

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Fourth down.

Those two words inspire both dread and hope in football. Fourth down spells doom or saves careers. It can change a game.

Or it can be the down where you send on the kicking team.

Carolina Panthers fans who have bristled at Ron Rivera’s conservatism in fourth-and-1 situations may not take much solace in this statistic: Of the 31 other NFL teams, only one has gone for it on fourth down less than the Panthers since 2011 when Rivera took over.

Want to guess who?

Denver – directed by former Panthers head coach John Fox.

Then again, going for it a lot on fourth down does not translate directly to victories, according to an Observer analysis.

Of the four NFL teams that have gone for it on fourth down the most frequently starting in 2011, all have mostly languished toward the bottom of the NFL standings. Only Seattle, San Francisco and New England have gone for it on fourth down relatively often while winning regularly.

Rivera has never publicly established “a punt is not a bad play” as one of his truisms, which Fox did early in his nine-year career in Charlotte.

But Rivera has followed that theory very closely in critical fourth-and-1, fourth-quarter situations with the Panthers.

In three different games – two in 2012 and the most recent one at Buffalo – that strategy has ultimately led to Carolina blowing a fourth-quarter lead in the final two minutes.

I bring this up today not to try to pour criticism on Rivera, who certainly has had enough of it heaped on him the past few days. I bring it up because the man still has a chance to change – but his chances are running out.

It’s possible that if the Panthers lose to the Giants Sunday, falling to 0-3, that Rivera might be fired by impatient, 76-year-old owner Jerry Richardson. Rivera must coach this Giants game like his last – for it just might be.

Losing leads

In Rivera’s 34-game career as the Panthers’ head coach, what has hurt him the most is Carolina’s inability to win close games. If he had just gone .500 in games decided by a touchdown or less, he would not be in this fix today. But the Panthers are 2-14 in games decided by seven points or fewer – a frequently cited statistic.

It is less widely known that of Rivera’s 21 losses as Carolina’s head coach, the team has led in the fourth quarter in 10 of those games but has ended up losing. The Panthers are tied with Philadelphia for most blown fourth-quarter leads in that span. (Of Rivera’s 13 wins as Panthers head coach, two have been come-from-behind, fourth-quarter wins).

I went back and studied those 10 come-from-ahead losses this week, searching for common denominators. I found three.

Two of them cannot be laid at Rivera’s feet. One can.

They are:

1. Cam Newton has not established himself as a clutch fourth-quarter quarterback. Too often, Newton has taken sacks or thrown key interceptions on the Panthers’ last-gasp drives.

2. The Panthers’ defense has repeatedly let the team down in late-game situations, allowing length-of-the-field drives or quick-strike scoring plays.

3. When faced with fourth-and-1 but holding a fourth-quarter lead, no matter how slight, Rivera invariably decides to punt or kick a field goal and counts on his defense to prevent a long touchdown drive. This happened against both Atlanta and Tampa Bay in 2012 and in Buffalo last week.

In all three games, Rivera chose not to go for a game-sealing fourth-and-1, worried about the loss in field position if the Panthers missed it. In all three cases, the Panthers’ defense then allowed a long drive to lose the game.

Rivera was asked this week whether his background as an NFL linebacker and defensive coordinator makes him more likely to put his faith in the defense in those situations rather than the offense.

“I would say yes,” Rivera said. “I really would. I think again sometimes you tend to favor that one side or the other because of who you are.”

Rivera has coached on staffs that took the opposite tack. When he was an assistant in Philadelphia, he said, head coach Andy Reid was an offensive-minded coach who liked to go for it on fourth down. Rivera still vividly remembers a time Reid did that and the Eagles threw an interception, putting Rivera’s defense in a tough spot.

Buffalo meltdown

In the Panthers’ most recent wrenching fourth-quarter loss, against Buffalo, the team faced a fourth-and-1 on Buffalo’s 21 with 1:42 left and a 20-17 Carolina lead.

Rivera opted for a field goal, although Buffalo had burned all its timeouts so a one-yard run would have sealed the game. He said his decision was based on the fact that with a six-point lead, Carolina would force Buffalo to go the length of the field for a touchdown with no timeouts and “you’d like to think you could make a play there.”

Graham Gano made the field goal, but Buffalo rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel led the Bills 80 yards for the game-winning touchdown with two seconds left.

Panthers tight end Greg Olsen defended Rivera’s decision in an interview this week, calling it a “no-brainer.”

“Everyone thinks a yard in the NFL is easy,” Olsen said. “It’s not. If we don’t get it, we have a three-point lead. The percentages of going 80 yards for a TD with no timeouts are way less than going 40 yards to get into field-goal range. It’s very convenient on Monday for people to say, ‘Well, you gave up the touchdown – stop playing to lose.’ We don’t play to lose. We don’t do all this work to lose.

“People who say that are just uninformed as to how this game works. It’s very easy on Monday to say you should have taken a chance. But at the time, we made the decision I believe most teams would make.”

Rivera has made almost exactly the same call twice before in losses. With a one-point lead at Atlanta last year, he skipped going for a fourth-and-1 at the Falcons 45 and punted. The punt was downed at the Atlanta 1 with 59 seconds left, but on the first play Matt Ryan threw a 59-yard strike to Julio Jones and the Falcons ended up winning on a field goal.

Also in 2012, Rivera had a 21-13 lead in a home game against Tampa Bay. With 1:02 left, a fourth-and-1 at the Buccaneer 49 and Tampa Bay out of timeouts, Rivera punted. The Bucs marched 80 yards, got the two-point conversion and then won the game on a touchdown in overtime.

“If you go for it there and you miss it,” Rivera said this week when revisiting that Tampa Bay call, “now all of a sudden they’ve got a much shorter field.”

Risk and reward

Fans usually want to try to convert on fourth down. Offensive players usually do, too.

“With my competitive nature, I always want to go for it on fourth down,” Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. “But I just leave any of those situations up to the coaches because I feel they have a better understanding of what’s going on in the game. ... I believe in Coach Rivera.”

Playing the field-position game rather than going for it is successful for many teams. Of the 10 teams that have gone for it on fourth down the fewest times since Rivera began with the Panthers in 2011, seven have made the playoffs at least once in the past two years. Only Carolina, Chicago and Dallas have not.

Conversely, the top two teams in fourth-down attempts – Jacksonville and St. Louis – have been among the worst teams in the NFL. Fox went for it an NFL-low five times in 2012 in Denver, but with Peyton Manning at quarterback he still won 13 games.

Only two teams marry risk-taking and frequent victories. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh and New England coach Bill Belichick are the only two coaches since 2011 with at least 24 fourth-down attempts and 24 wins over the past 34 regular-season games.

Seattle coach Pete Carroll also has long been known for taking risks with his offense. The Seahawks rank seventh in the NFL in most attempts since 2011, and Carroll had the same bent when coaching at Southern Cal.

Former Southern Cal center Ryan Kalil, now a Panther, remembers playing the night the Trojans lost their 34-game win streak in the national championship game against Texas following the 2005 season.

With Southern Cal ahead 38-33 and 2:13 left, Carroll decided to go for it on a fourth-and-2 from the Texas 45 to try to keep the ball out of Texas quarterback Vince Young’s hands.

“It was one of the most famous and controversial fourth-down calls ever,” Kalil said. “We called our best running play, called ‘Power.’ We had averaged six or seven yards the whole game on it. There was so much excitement in the huddle when the call came in. We ran LenDale White, our best power back.

“But we missed blocking the backside linebacker and we came up short. Vince Young took the ball, drove it down the field and won the game. If we would have punted, could he still have done that? I don’t know. I do know I still think about that play. I think about it a lot.”

As for Rivera, he is running out of chances to make a major impact as the Panthers’ head coach. His own career is facing its own version of fourth-and-1 now, and he may have to bet everything on his next big call.

Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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