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Conversations, heartbreak led Panthers coach Ron Rivera to the ‘Riverboat’ gambler within

NFL head coaches bark. They cajole. They scream. They order.

But Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera took the opposite approach when he tried to keep his own career from sinking – as well as the fortunes of a woebegone football team that hadn’t had a winning season since 2008.

Rivera stopped talking, and he listened.

Rivera hosted many of his key players in a series of candid dinners after a disappointing 7-9 season in 2012.

They talked about team dynamics, delegation and leadership, and Rivera said that changed the way he dealt with the players and coaches on a personal level. But he still wasn't ready to make the leap to a regular risk-taker.

The start of the 2013 season felt familiar: Another close loss, to the Seattle Seahawks, one of the NFL’s best teams.

Then, a week later, on Sept. 15, the Panthers faced a beatable foe, the Buffalo Bills.

Rivera, needing a yard on fourth down to clinch a victory late in the fourth quarter, took the conservative route. He had his team kick a field goal for a 6-point lead, and trusted his defense to hold on.

It couldn’t. A Buffalo touchdown in the final 10 seconds gave the Bills a 24-23 win, dropping Rivera to 2-14 as a head coach in games decided by 7 points or less.

Rivera says that he knew his job was in danger but that he wasn’t just thinking of that. Dozens of people who depend on him – assistant coaches and the players he has championed – were also in danger.

The Panthers had to win, or life was about to turn chaotic for everyone.

In the days after the Bills game – a defeat Rivera said still causes him “anguish” – Rivera agonized. With livelihoods on the line, he said, he knew something had to change.

And it had to be him.

The change seemed simple: Rivera started trusting his offense more, gambling on fourth downs with regularity.

But for a coach who had been an NFL linebacker with the Chicago Bears, it was not so simple. He had always been defensive-minded.

He says he knew, though, that he had to become more aggressive. If he was going to go out, by gosh, he would go out swinging.

“I think that really helped me, and I think it also helped the team,” Rivera said Monday. “I think the guys began to realize, ‘Hey, Coach does trust us. Coach does want us to put it all out there.’ And I think that was the one thing that was kind of missing from this team, that ‘put it all out there’ thing.

“Because if I’m not going to put it all out there, why should they?”

The change was so abrupt that it earned suddenly gambling Rivera the nickname “Riverboat Ron.”

It also inspired a Panthers team that, in turn, has inspired a region, moving from that 0-2 start to a 12-4 record, a first-round playoff bye and a hugely anticipated home playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

Rivera, three months later, may be in line for a contract extension and a national coach of the year award or two.

None of that seemed possible after the loss to that mediocre Buffalo team.

But it was that loss, the coach said, that pushed him into a place where he wasn’t comfortable – but a place where he ultimately needed to go.

The groundwork for the change, though, was laid at those three player dinners in January 2013.

No more ‘second-guessing’

The Panthers hired Rivera as their fourth head coach in early 2011. He had made his name as an NFL defensive coordinator in Chicago and San Diego, and had interviewed nine previous times for head-coaching jobs before finally landing the one in Charlotte.

Carolina drafted quarterback Cam Newton three months later, and Rivera entrusted his offense to Newton immediately, starting him from Day 1.

But even as Newton dazzled, he wasn’t entrusted with many fourth-and-short plays.

Rivera’s reputation was for coaching not to lose. When in doubt, the coach punted.

The Panthers improved, from 2-14 in the season before Rivera arrived to 6-10 in 2011 and 7-9 in 2012. But those were still losing seasons, and the Panthers were terrible in close games.

It wasn’t certain Rivera would return this season. Although he had signed a four-year contract in 2011, team owner Jerry Richardson waited six days before announcing in a statement that Rivera would be retained for 2013.

If he didn’t make the playoffs, though, it seemed likely he would be gone.

Rivera says he knew, even then, that things had to change. But how? The first step, he decided, was to listen.

The coach borrowed a page from the U.S. military, an organization he has always admired. Rivera’s father, Eugenio, served 32 years in the U.S. Army, raising the four Rivera boys (Ron was No. 3) largely on military bases.

“I had always heard that when you go into a debriefing, you take the rank off,” Rivera said. “So I decided to do that. This was a year ago – January 2013. I wanted an opportunity to hear from guys point-blank.”

Rivera had a series of three dinners. The first was with a group of veteran players. Then a group of key young players. Last, he and his wife dined with linebacker Thomas Davis and his wife.

“I didn’t talk much,” Rivera said. “I just really listened to what they all had to say. I said, ‘Hey, I need your input.’ There are things I need to know. I would love you guys to just be honest.

“And then I listened very intently.”

Rivera would not be specific about what he learned but said the dinners served their purpose.

“It opened my eyes up about a lot of things,” he said. “One thing I found out: As the head coach, you don’t see everything, and not everybody tells you everything.”

Rivera also had lengthy talks with Richardson, new general manager Dave Gettleman and former NFL coach and announcer John Madden – all of whom helped him, too.

Rivera didn’t want to name the players he took to dinner, except for Davis. But wide receiver Steve Smith said it was apparent that a different, more confident head coach arrived for training camp in Spartanburg in July.

“He is not the same Ron Rivera that came in that was a defensive coordinator,” Smith, a 13-year veteran, said in a recent interview. “Now he’s a head coach. I think he understands that. He accepts it.

“And I don’t believe he’s second-guessing himself anymore.”

The Buffalo fiasco

Rivera was more confident, but he was also still sticking to his defensive roots.

Through the first 34 games of his NFL head-coaching career – including the 0-2 start in 2013 – Rivera went for a first down on fourth down less often than every NFL head coach save for one: John Fox, the head coach Rivera replaced in 2011.

Rock bottom arrived in that 34th game, in Buffalo.

With 1:48 left in the fourth quarter, the Panthers led 20-17 and needed a single first down to run out the clock. On third-and-5 from the 25, fullback Mike Tolbert ran for 4 yards.

Carolina faced a fourth-and-1 from the Bills’ 21. Buffalo was out of timeouts.

Rivera could leave his offense on the field, and a single yard would clinch the game. Or Rivera could kick a field goal – the more conservative choice – and then hope his injury-riddled defense could hold the Bills, with a rookie quarterback and only 1:38 on the clock, without a touchdown.

Rivera chose the field goal.

“I’ve thought about that over and over,” the coach said of the fourth-and-1 choice. “I still see all of it. I still see the play bouncing outside with Michael Tolbert, not getting the first down, and then kicking the field goal.

“I still think about it.”

Buffalo took the ball and quickly drove 80 yards down the field, scoring the winning touchdown with two seconds to go. Rivera was heartsick, realizing his decision had been too timid.

Fans were irate. An unscientific online poll at asked whether Panthers owner Jerry Richardson should fire Rivera immediately.

There were more than 8,800 responses in 24 hours, and 83 percent of the respondents said “yes.”

The loss, Rivera said, was the turning point.

“I needed to realize that playing conservative, playing close to the vest, playing by the book – sometimes you’ve just got to throw all that away,” he said.

He first started thinking about coaching with a higher degree of risk on a team bus ride after the Buffalo game, then cemented that idea on several late-night drives home the following week, he said.

He watched college and pro games live, giving himself “mental repetitions” on kick-or-go-for-it decisions.

Said Rivera: “Every time now there’s a third-down situation, I start thinking, ‘OK, It’s third-and-8. If he gets 2 yards and they are on the 40, what would I do? Would I go for it?’ ”

The change wasn’t apparent immediately. A 38-0 victory over the New York Giants didn’t require many gambles, and the bye week followed.

But at Arizona, on Oct. 6, Rivera gambled on a big fourth down against Arizona. The risk failed when Brandon LaFell dropped a perfect pass from Newton, and Carolina lost again, falling to 1-3.

“We were at the crossroads,” Smith said. “It was going to go one of two ways. We were either going to fight our tails off and see how it shook out, or this ship was going down, and it was going down fast. And heads were going to roll.

“It was make or break for the players – and for the coaches.”

Breaking the mold

With his job on the line, Rivera stayed with his new approach.

The “Riverboat Ron” nickname bloomed when he went for fourth-and-1 twice in the first quarter the next week, against Minnesota. Carolina made both, and won in a blowout.

Newton, who had long lobbied for more risk-taking, recognized the change as significant. “I think he is kind of breaking his mold to a degree,” Newton said at the time, “and giving the whole team confidence with him.”

Rivera started repeating the mantra “touchdowns, not field goals,” to his offense, and he backed it up. Carolina went for it on fourth down 13 times during the season, making 10. That conversion rate of 77 percent was third-best in the NFL.

A fourth-and-10 gamble from the Panthers’ 20 late in a last-minute win over Miami was Rivera’s most audacious. A Newton pass to Smith for a first down was voted in an Observer poll of 16 Panthers players as the most important play of the season.

Rivera made another more subtle change, too, to show he still trusted his top-flight defense. When the Panthers won a pregame coin flip, Rivera would defer his choice to the second half. That would put his defense, ranked No. 2 in the NFL, on the field first, to set the tone.

The trust and confidence Rivera gained in those dinners a year ago, with some spurring from the loss in Buffalo, was translating to the field.

Keep it up?

On the sideline, Rivera never loses his composure. His stoic sideline demeanor was dismissed by many fans as too passive when the Panthers were losing but now is regarded as necessary calm in the face of chaos. Winning does that.

Said Rivera: “One of the things I learned from my dad, with him being in the military, is that when all hell is breaking loose, they are going to look to their commanding officer. And you have to maintain a certain decorum. Because they are all looking to you.”

In the past few weeks, they have seen Rivera backing away from Riverboat Ron.

It has worked: After going 2-14 in games decided by 7 points or fewer during the first 34 games of his Panther career, Carolina has been 5-0 in such games in November and December.

Against New Orleans Dec. 22, when Rivera punted late in the game, Rivera heard scattered boos from the home crowd.

But the Panthers stopped the Saints, got the ball back one last time and scored the winning TD.

At Atlanta Dec. 29, in a game Carolina had to win to get a first-round playoff bye, Carolina punted with a 21-20 lead. But the Panthers’ defense came through, and Carolina won again.

So the question remains: In his first playoff game as a head coach, against San Francisco, could Rivera gamble on a fourth down like the whole season depended upon it?

Rivera answered immediately.

“Most certainly,” he said.

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