You thought he was going to get fired.
You thought he was gone. Next stop, unemployment line. Vaya con dios, Ron Rivera. Don't let the door hit you on your way to ESPN studio analyst.
We all thought that. The universe did. On some alien world a thousand light years away, some green dudes were like, "Yep, Rivera is toast."
When I asked five NFL personnel men to think back to September and tell me who they believed would be the first coach fired this season, four said Rivera and one said Gary Kubiak. My guess is if you extrapolated those numbers to every team scout and general manager, Rivera's name would be in the 90th percentile.
The reason wasn't just Carolina's record under Rivera—he hadn't had a winning season until this year. It was Rivera himself. He was seen as stodgy, uncreative and horribly stubborn. One scout said he thought Rivera was a "poor man's Rex Ryan," with all of the positive and negative connotations associated with that. Meaning that Rivera knew about defense but didn't care about the offense. None of that was true, but that was the perception.
When Cam Newton last season took what many across football considered to be a step back, that perception of Rivera was reinforced.
If all of that had continued, he would have indeed been gone. There's little question about that.
Then, this season, something happened. Everything happened. On his way out the door, Rivera changed, and his team changed—and in the process, the Panthers became one of the best stories in football. They have won eight straight and have outscored opponents 211-99 during that streak. They have yet another test this week when they play New Orleans.
What's happened in Carolina is one of the all-time lessons. If there is one thing we've learned about Rivera, and football itself, it's that sometimes a team, a coach, a quarterback, need more than a few years to grow. While there are some coaches and quarterbacks who spring onto the scene like microwave popcorn, there are others who require good, old-fashioned marination.
The way Rivera tells it, the Panthers' success this year was simply another step in the evolution of his team. He reiterated this during a conference call with the New Orleans media this week, saying:
I think [the team has] gelled over a period of time. This team has gone through a lot, not just since I've been here, but before I got here. Struggling the way we had the two previous seasons before I got here, the last two that we went through. I think it was just a matter of time. We were able to get the players that we were kind of looking for, the type of players. I think we've had three really good draft classes. We've done well in free agency and those guys are now kind of coming to fruition.
Our quarterback has to learn and grow. I think expectations in this league are so out of whack because so many people are having success right away that they expect it constantly. That’s just not the way it is. It’s hard to win in this league and to win consistently like you have in New Orleans, that’s where you want to get to. You want to get to that point where it’s not one year up, one year down, it’s four, five, six, seven years in a row."
But those are coachisms. They are Rivera-isms. The truth is, he changed from Regular Ron to Riverboat Ron. It's that transformation that altered the course of both Rivera and this franchise.
Last season, the Panthers went for first downs on fourth downs just nine times. This was the sixth-lowest number in the NFL.
Going for it on fourth down, as corny as it may sound, shows a coach has confidence in his team. Going for it on so few occasions could indicate to players the opposite.
This season, Rivera changed his coaching style almost entirely, and one of the ways that manifested itself was his fourth-down calls. He started going for them. And going for them. And going.
|Panthers fourth-down attempts this season|
|Week||Situation||Play||Result of drive|
|3||4th-and-1 at NYG 2||Tolbert 2-yard TD run||Touchdown|
|3||4th-and-8 at NYG 31||Tolbert 1-yard run||Turnover on downs|
|5||4th-and-1 at Ari 15||Newton pass incomplete||Turnover on downs|
|6||4th-and-1 at Min 32||Tolbert 2-yard run||Touchdown|
|6||4th-and-1 at Min 2||Newton 2-yard TD pass to Smith||Touchdown|
|8||4th-and-1 at TB 28||Tolbert 2-yard run||Touchdown|
|9||4th-and-1 at Atl 14||Newton 14-yard TD pass to Olsen||Touchdown|
|12||4th-and-1 at Car 41||Newton 8-yard run||Touchdown|
|12||4th-and-10 at Car 20||Newton 19-yard pass to Smith||Touchdown|
|13||4th-and-1 at TB 11||Anderson 2-yard run||End of game|
|13||4th-and-1 at TB 1||Newton 1-yard TD run||Touchdown|
|Source: NFL.com and B/R research|
This win streak has seen Carolina go for it on fourth down eight times and make it eight times. In six of those drives, according to John McTigue of ESPN.com, the Panthers scored a touchdown.
This is the particularly gutsy part. Six of the fourth-down conversions came when Carolina was either tied or in the lead. This means that in a close game, he went for it, instead of what he had mostly been doing before this season, which is playing it safe.
He laughed about the nickname Riverboat Ron during the conference call:
It’s unbelievable. This thing has taken on a mind of its own. It’s kind of gone all over the place, and it’s one of those things that the moniker is what it is as far as trying to describe some of the decisions I've made. I kind of look at what I've done as just calculating it. But I will say this: my wife and I are going to try to figure out a way to use it to help benefit some of these charities out here that we work with. We've got to just keep rolling with it I guess.
Going for it on fourth transformed the team's personality. It positively infected everything. The Panthers became more confident and aggressive. They started to believe, and belief in football is almost as valuable of a commodity as raw talent.
My guess is that Rivera decided he wasn't going out like a punk. He was going to fight. Rivera is, after all, the son of a former Army officer. He was an All-American linebacker at Cal and won a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears.
Yes, he may have decided enough was enough. And so here they are, the blue-collar Panthers, and their new coach. Their new, gambling coach.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.