After more than a month in the NFL wilderness, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera vowed to play and coach with a sense of urgency Sunday against Atlanta.
But with a chance to grab a comeback victory and some much-needed momentum going into the bye week, the coach known as “Riverboat Ron” for his gambling ways in 2013 chose to play it safe.
With quarterback Cam Newton finally stirring from his four-week slumber, the Panthers were having their way with the league’s worst-ranked passing defense in the fourth quarter and looked to be on the verge of a come-from-behind win that would have put them back in first in the NFC South.
Instead of going for the jugular, Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula tried to rid the Falcons via death by paper cuts.
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Running play. Running play. Running play. Followed by a 46-yard field goal try by Graham Gano.
But Gano missed wide left by a couple of feet, giving the Falcons a 19-17 victory and a share of first in the division no one wants to win.
If Gano makes the kick, we’re probably not questioning Rivera’s conservative strategy in the three plays that preceded it. But he didn’t, the Panthers are 3-7-1, and where’s that sense of urgency?
Even before Gano tried the kick, tight end Greg Olsen let his frustrations be known. After reaching the sideline after Jonathan Stewart lost a yard on a third-and-5 on a rush behind left guard, Olsen slammed his helmet down.
Rivera said he wanted to make the Falcons use all three of their remaining timeouts after Carolina drove to the Atlanta 32 with 1:42 left.
But the Panthers had stormed back into the game on the strength of Newton’s right arm.
He’d thrown scoring passes to “Touchdown” Philly Brown and Kelvin Benjamin the two previous series, and his completions to Olsen and Benjamin quickly moved the Panthers into Gano’s range.
Had they not gained yard, Gano would have had a 50-yard attempt. When the runs to DeAngelo Williams, Newton and Stewart netted 4 yards, Gano trotted out for the 46-yarder, which Rivera and everyone else expected him to make.
“We ran what we felt were good runs,” Rivera said. “If we get the first down, great, we’re closer. If not, they use all three timeouts.”
Veteran wideout Jason Avant said he thought the Panthers could have been a “little bit more aggressive” to give Gano an easier kick.
“I’ve been in the league a long time. I know two things. You never want to give a team a chance to win a game, with how much time was left on the clock. And asking a kicker to make a 50-yard field goal with the game on the line is rough sledding,” Avant said.
“If that’s the only option, yes. But if it’s not, you want to get as close as you can and think score and play to score a touchdown. Because I’d rather the team have to score a touchdown to win the game than to have to kick a field goal. It’s just a lot different. It’s a 30-yard difference.”
Shula got creative during the final drive, calling a pair of hook-and-lateral plays to get the Panthers into Atlanta territory and give Gano a shot at redemption. His 63-yarder was partially blocked by rookie Ra’Shede Hageman as time expired.
To his credit, Gano stood in front of his locker for two waves of interviews and took responsibility for both misses.
“You can make excuses for stuff, but I’ve hit from long 40 all day long,” he said. “I’ve got to do a better job. I’m not going to stand here and make excuses for missing a kick.”
Panthers center Ryan Kalil was among the players who stopped by Gano’s locker and told him the loss was not on him.
And it wasn’t.
It shouldn’t have taken three quarters for Newton and the offense to get going against the Falcons’ defense. After the nine-sack debacle at Philadelphia, the offensive line did a better job protecting Newton.
But receivers weren’t getting much separation from defensive backs early in the game. Things started clicking in the fourth quarter, when a fight seemed to energize the Panthers.
A crowd that booed Newton earlier was making a lot of noise, linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis were making plays all over the field and Newton looked like his former self.
But there would be no comeback, just another week without a win.
The six-game winless streak is the longest since 2010, when John Fox’s final team had a seven-game losing streak en route to a 2-14 finish. When you’re equaling low-water marks from 2010, it’s been a bad year, regardless of what the standings might suggest.
“I think obviously we’re very lucky with the situation,” said Kalil, referring to the Panthers’ place a game back of New Orleans and Atlanta. “Twenty-year anniversary of our franchise, this isn’t exactly the way we wanted this to look. The fortunate thing for us is we’re still in the mix. Each and every week the sense of urgency has to go up.”
Sunday would have been a good time to start.