It was after the loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 2 when I joined the masses. I caved and gave up on Ron Rivera. I was mad, you were mad and Rivera was the one who took the brunt of our anger. He deserved it then because he continued to repeat past mistakes despite routinely seeing the same result. Then everything changed.
Riverboat Ron was born and the Panthers have been rolling since. The change in attitude towards Rivera is about as drastic as I’ve ever seen when it comes to how a coach has been viewed on a local and national level. Letting go of his conservative philosophy in favor of an aggressive approach when it comes to short yardage fourth down situations has resulted in a different perception of the third-year coach. But what does all of this mean? Is Rivera now a bad coach turned into a good one or is this a coach who had all the tools finally putting it together much like we see with players who are in the league in their third season?
After last season I wanted the Panthers to stick with Rivera. I felt that this team was close and had it not been for late game collapses they would have been in a much different spot last season. Mainly I wanted the team to bring Rivera back because I didn’t see why a coach couldn’t improve like we see with players. Uprooting the coaching staff and bringing in a new one seemed to be more of a gamble if the Panthers were serious about competing this season than sticking with the current staff.
The opening day loss was to a good Seattle team that featured a poor offensive performance that resulted in only seven points, but that was a loss that was chalked up to the opponent being better. It was one that the fan base wasn’t going to get on Rivera and his staff about. Then Buffalo happened. It mirrored last season’s failures by Rivera in which he opted to put the game in the hands of the defense as opposed to the offense to close it out in a short yardage situation on fourth down.
That’s when I wrote on this site that I had given up on Rivera ever seeing the light. It seemed his time in Carolina was not salvageable and that he would guide the Panthers to another losing record that would have put him out of a job. That loss to Buffalo woke up Rivera to the reality of the situation he was in. Either he rights the ship quick or he may never get another head coaching gig in the NFL again.
Against the Giants the Panthers were 1-for-2 on fourth down with the first touchdown of the game coming on a 4-and-1 run on the Giants’ two-yard line by Mike Tolbert. That set off a dominant performance that left many feeling that there still was hope with a bye week coming up and a soft schedule coming out of it. An ugly loss to Arizona would change those feelings, but the loss couldn’t be placed on the shoulders of Rivera. No, this time it fell on the players’ inability to come up with routine plays in big situations.
Riverboat Ron was born after the loss to the Bills, but against the Cardinals the players didn’t come through (cough, Brandon LaFell, cough). At 1-3 for the third season in a row there was no reason to have faith in the coaching staff or team. Then Minnesota happened, followed by a comfortable win over St. Louis, Tampa Bay was next up on a short week and finally a showdown with division rival Atlanta. It was easy to write off the first two wins, but the thrashing of the Bucs and Falcons said something despite both teams’ struggles.
Those wins showed off the transformation of Ron Rivera to Riverboat Ron. The Panthers lacked confidence under Rivera. They were always coming up short, always showed a look of fear late in games, always letting the opposing team hang around. That look dissipated with Riverboat Ron continually rolling the dice by letting his offense go out on fourth down and try for the conversion. It’s resulted more often than not in touchdowns for the Panthers and given the offense a swagger that previously didn’t exist.
The defense has continued to be stout, but the offense has finally risen its level of play to a point to where the Panthers look dangerous. With a four game stretch many feel will define this season for Carolina coming up, Riverboat Ron has the Panthers playing their best football. While playoff talk feels legitimate there still is the possibility this team falters down the stretch and the front office is looking for a new coach this offseason.
But if I was a betting man I’d roll with Riverboat Ron and the team he has developed.