Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers Coaches Are to Blame for Close Losses This Season
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The Carolina Panthers (1-6) have lost five games by six or fewer points this season and they had a chance to win each of those games until the end.
As Cam Newton might say, it's the same old tired script now, week in and week out.
However, for all of Newton's struggles this season, Ron Rivera and his staff are every bit as responsible as the players—if not more so—for the Panthers' inability to win the close ones.
In the end, it could cost Rivera and his staff their jobs at season's end if Carolina does not win its fair share of tight games in the second half of the season.
The Panthers' two most frustrating losses, a 30-28 setback to the Atlanta Falcons (7-0) and last week's 23-22 defeat to the Chicago Bears (6-1), came on last-second, game winning field goals and provided evidence that Carolina has the talent to hang with the best teams in the league.
However, indecisive coaching and poor decision making by Rivera and his offensive and defensive coordinators, Rob "Chud" Chudzinski and Sean McDermott, cost Carolina an opportunity to have—at worst—a 3-4 record through Week 8 of the 2012 NFL season.
For Rivera and his staff, the bad decisions and inability to make effective halftime adjustments seemingly have no end.
Perhaps the most telling comment from Coach Rivera all season was his statement after Sunday's loss at Chicago.
The Panthers' coach said his goal was to make Jay Cutler's offense beat the Panthers' defense systematically when he and McDermott decided to abandon their aggressive approach on the final drive and fall into a softer zone-coverage defense.
The aggressive approach had resulted in six first-half sacks and had limited the Bears' high-scoring offense to just two touchdowns on the day. Via the Charlotte Observer:
“We were trying to keep the ball in front of us. It’s one of those things where if you jump it and they double move you, now all of a sudden it’s a touchdown or the ball is in field goal range. We were trying to make them systematically beat us. They got in field-goal position, and you take your chances at that point.”
Well, that's exactly what Chicago did.
Here is a look at how the Panthers have fared in close games this season and who is primarily to blame for each loss.
Week 1: Tampa Bay Buccaneers 16, Carolina Panthers 10
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In their season opener at Tampa Bay, Carolina simply could not get its running game going and the offense sputtered throughout the game.
The Panthers closed the lead to three points in the fourth quarter after trailing 13-0 at the half, but a costly blocked punt set up Tampa Bay's only three points of the second half.
Down by six late in the game, Carolina needed a touchdown to win and did not have a chance to attempt a game-tying field goal despite getting into kicker Justin Medlock's range late in the game.
Who's to Blame?
Put this loss on the special teams failing to set up properly in punt protection and on Chud for devising an offensive game plan that could not put up more points against a Tampa Bay defense that has given up 21.9 points per game in its first seven contests.
Week 4: Atlanta Falcons 30, Carolina Panthers 28
Roddy White (84) hauls in a 59-yard catch that helped set up Atlanta's game-winning field goal in Week 4.
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Carolina had this game in the bag.
With just over two minutes left in the game, Cam Newton came up one yard short of a first down with an opportunity to end the game in victory formation when he fumbled the ball on a 3rd-and-3 run in Falcons territory with the Panthers leading, 28-27.
Fullback Mike Tolbert recovered the ball and Ron Rivera sent out the punting unit on 4th-and-1.
Rookie punter Brad Nortman responded with the best punt of his young NFL career, pinning Matt Ryan's offense at the one-yard line just inside the two-minute warning.
Two downs later, on the play that has so far defined the Panthers' season, Ryan hoisted a deep pass down the sidelines to Roddy White for a 59-yard completion over the twisted feet and outstretched hands of safety Haruki Nakamura.
White had already burned Nakamura for a pair of touchdowns earlier in the game, and why the 5'10" safety was left alone deep in the secondary to defend against the pass is anyone's guess.
Suddenly, the Panthers went into a soft zone coverage and allowed Ryan to move his team into position to kick the 40-yard game-winning field goal by Matt Bryant with five seconds left in the game.
Who's to Blame?
Nakamura was obviously at fault, but the ultimate responsibility for this loss rests with Ron Rivera.
The Panthers' head coach had a chance to make an aggressive call and go for the win with a 4th-and-1 conversion in a game in which Carolina rushed for 199 yards on the day.
This is the game in which Rivera's passive, playing-the-odds approach put him on the hot seat with Carolina fans and media.
Week 5: Seattle Seahawks 16, Carolina Panthers 12
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Carolina's offense struggled all afternoon against the Seahawks' defense, with nine of the Panthers' 12 points coming via a Captain Munnerlyn interception and an intentional safety by Seattle's punter late in the game.
Despite the offense's anemic effort throughout the day—141 yards passing and 82 yards on the ground—Newton led his troops on a potentially game-winning 11-play, 79-yard drive that ended on downs after an incomplete fourth-down pass from the one-yard line.
On the decisive play, Newton rolled out to his right and evaded a heavy pass rush as he ran toward the sideline.
Then, with nowhere left to run, Carolina's No. 2 tight end, Ben Hartsock found a soft spot in the defense.
Newton threw a bounce pass to his wide-open target which would have made Bob Cousy proud.
Newton blew this one with an atrocious pass that would have won the game had the football found its mark through the air.
However, on 4th-and-goal from the one with the game on the line, he should have been asked to line up under center and make one of his signature leaps over the goal line.
Who's to Blame?
Rob Chudzinski takes the blame for this one, despite Newton's one-hop pass to a wide-open Hartsock in the end zone.
With the NFL's all-time single-season record holder for touchdown runs by a quarterback lined up behind center, Chud called for a roll-out pass that gave Cam Newton the option to either run the ball in around the corner or throw the ball into the end zone.
I will put my money on Newton to score on a quarterback sneak from the one on any given Sunday, but Chud devised a much riskier play with an opportunity to go ahead by three points with a little over three minutes remaining on the clock.
Chud simply brought too many outside factors into play with the game on the line.
In this case, fewer options would have been better.
Week 7: Dallas Cowboys 19, Carolina Panthers 14
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Cam Newton had a solid, yet unspectacular game against the Cowboys, guiding the Panthers' offense up and down the field but reaching the end zone just twice.
The Panthers' QB threw for 233 yards, a touchdown and a red-zone interception. He also ran for 64 yards on six carries.
However, the name of the game is scoring and Carolina could not quite get it done against a Dallas defense that had allowed nearly 24 points per game heading into the contest.
Carolina hoped to revitalize its running game by starting Jonathan Stewart over the disgruntled DeAngelo Williams, but Stewart gained just 35 yards on 10 carries and Williams was limited to four yards on a pair of touches as the read-option was ineffective once again.
Following a controversial Cowboys timeout that negated a Panthers fourth-down conversion from their own 40-yard line with two minutes and 11 seconds left in the game, Rivera green-lighted another crack at the first-down and a potential game-winning drive.
This time Newton's pass to Louis Murphy fell incomplete when the officials swallowed their whistles on what appeared to be defensive pass interference.
Two plays later, a disgraceful horse-collar penalty on a clean James Anderson tackle moved the Cowboys into field goal range where Dan Bailey kicked his second three-pointer of the fourth-quarter to complete the game's scoring.
Who's to Blame?
Dallas had a lot of help from the officials, but once again, Chud takes most of the heat for this loss.
Though I praised Rivera for going for it on 4th-and-1, the play call was questionable.
Again, Carolina has one of the game's best short-yardage backs in Newton but they opted to pass instead of sneaking him past the chains.
The Panthers' play calling was terrible throughout the game, and their pass-to-run ratio was an unacceptable 37 passes vs. 21 runs.
The only positive takeaway from this game is that it forced the Panthers to announce that they would move away from the read-option as their primary mode of attack in the running game from here on out.
Week 8: Chicago Bears 23, Carolina Panthers 22
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After dominating the first three quarters of the game and taking a 19-7 lead into the final 15 minutes, the Panthers once again found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
This may have been the most maddening loss for Carolina coaches, players and fans who have become numb to heartbreak in the first half of the season.
The most decisive plays of the game came in the fourth quarter.
First, Brad Nortman shanked a punt that netted just six yards from inside Panthers territory, giving Chicago a short field for their 38-yard touchdown drive.
On Carolina's first play of the ensuing possession, Cam Newton threw an interception to Chicago's Tim Jennings when Steve Smith slipped on an out pattern.
Jennings ran the ball into the end zone to put the Bears ahead, 20-19.
The Panthers answered with a 12-play drive and Justin Medlock's career-high fifth field goal of the game, returning the ball to Chicago with two minutes and 27 seconds left to play.
Suddenly, the Panthers' defense began playing soft after attacking all afternoon—Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson and Dwan Edwards combined for six sacks and two forced fumbles in the first half—and Cutler picked them apart.
The Bears' QB completed six-of-seven passes on the drive, including four completions to Brandon Marshall, to move Chicago into field goal range.
Robbie Gould sealed the deal with a 41-yard field goal to win the game as the clock reached all zeros.
Who's to Blame?
This loss lies squarely on the shoulders of the Panthers' head coach.
Ron Rivera is officially on the coaching hot seat after deciding not to attempt a 51-yard field goal at the end of the first half and for allowing McDermott to play a soft cover zone on Chicago's final drive.
Rivera's questionable decision to squib kick in order to eliminate the Devin Hester factor on every kickoff gave Chicago great starting field position throughout the game, but Carolina's defense responded by keeping the Bears' offense in check most of the afternoon.
The decision to essentially play a prevent defense late in the game may have been McDermott's idea, but Rivera has ultimate authority over every Panthers' decision made in the game.
Rivera needs to improve his game-management skills and develop a tougher sideline posture in the second half of the season, or he may be looking for another coordinator position next year.
Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist covering the Carolina Panthers and the NFL on B/R.
You can follow me for random updates and pointed commentary on Twitter @JimmyGrappone.
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