Carolina Panthers (1-3) head coach Ron Rivera made the "right" call when he elected to punt the ball back to the Atlanta Falcons (4-0) from midfield with his team clinging to a one-point lead at the Georgia Dome and only one minute and nine seconds left to play in the game.
Cam Newton had just come up one-yard short on a third-and-two run in which he dove past the first-down markers; he fumbled the ball backwards and Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert fell on it to retain possession—one yard shy of the first down.
On fourth-and-one, the Panthers ran 35 seconds off the clock in an attempt to draw Atlanta offsides, but the Falcons must have known that Rivera would not go for the game-clinching first down at midfield after coming up short on the previous play.
Sure, Carolina had already picked up 199 rushing yards in the game and a one-yard gain would ensure a Panthers victory, but with Atlanta shutting down the Panthers' inside running game all afternoon, it was just too risky a play.
Plus, he had already passed for three touchdown passes on the day—two to Roddy White and one to Michael Turner—and Carolina could not risk giving Atlanta the ball with a short field and more than a minute to get into field goal range.
That would have been a dummy move.
Playing the Odds
So, Coach Rivera sent his punter, Brad Nortman, onto the field with one critical assignment: get the punt off safely and pin Atlanta as deep as possible.
Nortman's execution was flawless and the Panthers' coverage team made the best play they have made all season, corralling the ball at the one-yard line and pinning the Falcons offense 99 yards away from Carolina's end zone with 59 seconds left in the game.
Did Rivera make the right call by punting on fourth-and-one?
When faced with the difficult decision of whether to try to ice the game with a fourth-down conversion or punt the ball away to the Falcons, Rivera showed his skin by playing the odds and playing it safe.
A more aggressive coach, or a coach less averse to risk, may have rolled the dice and put the onus on his offensive line to open a crease for Newton or Jonathan Stewart to pick up one last crucial yard.
Or he may have even called a play-action pass for tight end Greg Olsen (6 catches, 89 yards, one touchdown), expecting nearly all of the Falcons defenders to line up inside the box.
Instead, Rivera made the "smart" call.
He played the odds and elected to punt the ball away, putting the ball in the hands of a quarterback who has lost just a handful of home games in his first four-plus seasons with the Falcons.
Carolina had the Falcons right where Rivera wanted them, with their backs against the wall and the Panthers uprights 109 yards away.
But on the first play of what would be the Falcons' game-winning drive, Ryan heaved the ball downfield from five yards deep in his own end zone. The pass found Roddy White (8 catches, 169 yards, two touchdowns), who caught the ball over back-peddling free safety, Haruki Nakamura.
Should Haruki Nakamura continue to start at free safety?
The same Nakamura who was the last line of defense on all four of Atlanta's touchdown opportunities.
The same Nakamura who intercepted a Ryan pass in the end zone on Atlanta's second possession of the game, but who was burned by White on a similar deep pass for a 49-yard touchdown pass when the Falcons offense got the ball back for a third time.
The same Nakamura who was beaten on White's second touchdown reception and who whiffed on Michael Turner as he rumbled down the field for a 60-yard scoring catch and run on Atlanta's first possession of the second half.
The 59-yard completion moved Atlanta all the way to the Panthers' 40-yard line.
A Crucial Miscalculation
Haruki Nakamura was the Panthers' last line of defense all afternoon against the Falcons, and he consistently came up short.
This was the man Rivera put his faith in to prevent a huge, game-changing play from taking place and somehow—after being victimized on three previous tries earlier in the game—Nakamura was burned...again.
What were the chances of that happening?
The Falcons were gifted with new life with 50 seconds to go, and after a couple of sideline passes to Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas stopped the clock and got the ball to the Panthers' 22-yard line, Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant lined up for the game-winning field goal attempt with 10 seconds left on the clock.
Again, it was Rivera's turn to make a call and the Panthers attempted to ice the kicker by taking a timeout just before Bryant split the uprights on his first attempt from 40-yards.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, the result was the same when Bryant kicked a second time.
Atlanta took the lead, 30-28, with five seconds to go, and faced with first down and 80 yards to go for a miracle Panthers touchdown, Newton was sacked by John Abraham on a three-man Falcons rush and the game was over.
There are two types of coaches in the NFL: those who "go for it" and those who do not.
Most coaches fall into the latter category.
Faced with the choice between trying to clinch the game with a fourth-and-one conversion inside Falcons territory that, had it failed, would have given Atlanta possession at its own 45-yard line or better, Rivera made the same decision that most NFL coaches would have made.
Can the Panthers become a great team with Ron Rivera as their head coach?
He punted the ball and put the game into his defense's hands.
It may not be the call that the Patriots Bill Belichick would have made.
It may not be the call that suspended Saints coach Sean Payton or either of the Harbaugh brothers would have made.
But it is likely the call that Denver's John Fox or the Giants Tom Coughlin would have made and those guys have a Manning lined up behind center.
Like Fox and Coughlin, Rivera is a defensive-minded coach.
So, despite Carolina's obvious defensive deficiencies, Rivera opted to play it "safe" by putting the game in his defense's hands and forcing the NFL's top-rated quarterback to move his team into field-goal range with zero timeouts and less than a minute to play.
Either he lacked confidence in his offense's ability to move the chains, or he lacked confidence in himself to face the scrutiny if they had come up short. No one knows what would have happened if Rivera had sent Cam Newton and Co. back onto the field to go for it on fourth down.
But by giving the ball back to Matty Ice with the game on the line, Ron Rivera revealed himself, and he got burned just as badly as his back-peddling free safety.
When it was all said and done, the Carolina Panthers left the Georgia Dome with an "L".
Perhaps Rivera is a gambler, after all.
Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist covering the Carolina Panthers and the NFL on BleacherReport.com.
You can follow me on Twitter @jimmygrappone, and be sure to check out my archives for more Panthers articles.
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