Four games into the 2013 season, Ron Rivera was 1-3, on the hot seat and widely ridiculed for his overly conservative decision-making. What a difference a few months can make.
Rivera won the 2013 Associated Press Coach of the Year award on Saturday after spearheading the Panthers' charge to a 12-4 record and their first playoff berth in five seasons. Better known by his nickname Riverboat Ron, Rivera beat out Andy Reid, Bill Belichick and other deserving suitors, the NFL announced:
The Associated Press decides the award, which has been an annual staple since 1957, by polling 50 writers. Rivera is the second Carolina head coach to receive the honor, joining Dom Capers, who led the Panthers to a 12-4 record in just their second year of existence.
Rivera didn't pull off quite that surprising feat, but it's hard to find any coach who underwent a bigger transformation in 2013. Left for dead after their ugly start, the Panthers seemed in need of a major change. Cam Newton, the team's spectacular quarterback who thrived as a rookie, was plateauing. The defense was performing well, but had a habit of allowing big plays at the least opportune time.
And then there was Rivera.
A touted defensive coordinator who had more head coaching interviews than one could count before landing in Carolina, Rivera didn't look like he could hack it running a team. The Panthers had a jarring propensity for blowing close games, and Rivera was the patron saint of "playing not to lose." In his first 34 games as a head coach, only John Fox of the Denver Broncos was more conservative attempting fourth-down conversions, per Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer.
Then something clicked. Rivera decided to take a more aggressive approach, propelling Carolina to an eight-game win streak. The Panthers reeled off 11 wins in their final 12 games, with Rivera's fourth-down decisions becoming something of a turning point. Heck, Rivera even took the steps to trademark his nickname.
Back in November, Rivera explained his change of heart to Michael Silver of NFL.com:
It's funny, because you're told to 'play it by the book,' but is that truly the book? The book says you take the points. But hey, you've got to score touchdowns to win in this league. You can't just sit there and take field goals. Think about it: Who wrote 'The Book'? There is no book.
Of course, reputation doesn't always match reality. Carolina still ranked only 18th in the league with 13 fourth-down attempts. But Rivera excelled at making the decisions at the right time. Only Denver and San Diego converted at a higher clip, and those AFC West teams went for it a combined 15 times.
Still, the Panthers cut their teeth on Rivera's calling card: their defense. They ranked second in yards and points allowed behind Seattle, and finished third in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. Luke Kuechly took home the 2013 Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year award, and Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson both turned in double-digit sack seasons.
Rivera's run was cut short by the 49ers in the playoffs, but it's safe to say the Panthers have asserted themselves as a team to watch heading into next season. With Newton coming into his own, Kuechly playing at an elite level and the young up-and-comers like Star Lotulelei on the rise, the Panthers won't be catching anyone by surprise in 2014.
The Panthers have improved each year under Rivera, going 6-10 in 2011, 7-9 in 2012 and 12-4 this season. Carolina will be looking to take an additional step forward while staying atop the unpredictable NFC South.
Riverboat Ron might be his reputation. But the Panthers were excellent in 2013 because of Ron Rivera the football coach.
Who would have thought that in September?
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