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Suddenly aggressive Ron Rivera learns to gamble on 4th down

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/14/17/09/alH9G.Em.138.jpeg|375
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera stands along the team’s sideline during second quarter of Sunday’s victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Four times in critical situations in the past three games, the inherently conservative coach has allowed his time to go for it on fourth down. Three of those four times the Panthers have been successful.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/14/17/09/lTcxM.Em.138.jpeg|395
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith is congratulated by teammates Ryan Kalil (67) and Travelle Wharton after catching a fourth-down touchdown pass from Cam Newton during the first quarter Sunday.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/14/17/09/FEco4.Em.138.jpeg|396
    Hannah Foslien - Getty Images
    Cam Newton (1) and Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers celebrate a fourth-down touchdown catch by Smith during the first quarter of the game against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

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  • To go, or not to go?

    Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera has been much more aggressive on fourth down the past three games than he was in his first 34 as the team’s head coach. Three quick facts:

    • In Rivera’s first 34 games as Panthers head coach, he went for it on fourth down 19 times, for an average of once every 1.8 games.

    • Only Denver coach John Fox – the former Panthers coach who was known for his conservatism – went for it on fourth down less often during that stretch.

    • In the past three games, Rivera has gone for it on fourth down five times, for an average of once every 0.6 games (or about once every 2.4 quarters).


It took a little more than two years, but Panthers coach Ron Rivera has finally found religion in terms of going for it on fourth down.

After being the second-most-conservative coach in the NFL through his first 34 games in trying for fourth-down conversions – only Denver’s John Fox did so less often – Rivera has done a serious about-face over the past three games following the debacle in Buffalo.

To me, this represents a welcome and overdue change in his coaching style. If Rivera is going to go down – and we all know his job is in jeopardy if he doesn’t make the playoffs this year – he has decided to go down swinging rather than kicking.

Inherently wired to trust his defense by virtue of his coaching and playing background, Rivera has started to take more risks with his offense. This trust has empowered the locker room and seems to have particularly resonated with quarterback Cam Newton, who is a “confidence” player and for all his talent also needs to be reassured often that his coaching staff has faith in him.

“It’s about trying to make a statement,” Rivera said of his fourth-down risks on Monday. “And it’s probably also honestly one of the things that I’ve learned. Sometimes you play by the book and you miss opportunities. It’s been an enlightening situation for me. One of the things that I want to try to do is to make sure we are in the best position to win. And the other realization is kicking field goals is obviously not good enough.”

The Panthers coach has ordered his offense to go for it on fourth-and-1 four times in critical situations over the past three games. On three of those four plays, Carolina (2-3) has converted.

It would have been 4-for-4 except that Brandon LaFell dropped a sure first-down pass from Newton in the second quarter at Arizona. I thought Rivera made the right call regardless.

And those three conversions – two battering Mike Tolbert runs and a Newton pass to Steve Smith for Sunday’s first touchdown on fourth-and-1 from the 2 against Minnesota – have set the tone for Carolina’s two lopsided victories over the past three weeks. (Rivera also went for it a fifth time in those three games – deep in the fourth quarter of a 38-0 win over the New York Giants while trying to run out the clock. That one missed, but it didn’t matter by then).

To review: Rivera messed up during the Panthers’ loss at Buffalo in Week 2. With a 20-17 lead deep in the fourth quarter, he skipped going for a fourth-and-1 and instead took a field goal.

Buffalo then drove 80 yards for the winning touchdown. Similar “kick-and-play-defense” scenarios have played out two other times in two other devastating losses during the Rivera era in Carolina – in 2012 in games vs. Atlanta and Tampa Bay.

When asked shortly after the Buffalo game why he didn’t go for the one yard on fourth down, Rivera said: “At that point in time, this early in the season, I don’t think you throw caution to the wind or play desperate.”

Now? The Panthers don’t look desperate, but thankfully they no longer look so cautious, either.

Rivera has yet to face a “Buffalo” sort of situation again. His four big fourth-down gambles over the past three games have all come in the first half. But I bet he will go for it next time, too, for he is honestly trying to change his approach.

The Panthers are now in the middle of the NFL in terms of fourth-down attempts in 2013 (tied for 15th) after lagging well behind the pack in 2011 and 2012.

Look, coaching is a complicated business. Rivera said Monday there is a checklist of 32 items he studies before he takes the field, and that all 32 factors could influence whether he goes for it on fourth down or not.

But going for it on fourth down is ultimately a feel thing. My analysis of fourth-down calls since Rivera took over at Carolina in 2011 showed that New England’s Bill Belichick and San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh are the acknowledged masters of it, with Seattle’s Pete Carroll not far behind. All three prefer to gamble on offense, and all three win a lot.

Rivera, a former NFL linebacker, has always preferred to put the game in his defense’s hands. That makes sense in some ways – the Panthers have a strong defense.

But against Buffalo, almost Carolina’s entire defensive backfield was injured. Rivera hurt the team by not allowing Tolbert or Newton to try to win that game by gaining a single yard.

“As a defensive coordinator you look at it one way,” Rivera said. “And now, putting on the hat of the head coach, you’ve got to look at it from a different perspective, and it’s something that I’ve grown into.”

When asked whether he would make a different call against the Bills now, Rivera said Monday he didn’t want to revisit the decision because he didn’t want to “live in the past.”

Fair enough. The future looms. The next 11 games will decide Rivera’s, and the Panthers’, fate. And when that big fourth-quarter fourth down call inevitably comes up, we will know for sure if Rivera really can step all the way out on the limb he is now edging across.

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