By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) — The media knows him as “Riverboat Ron” because of his tendency to go for it on fourth down and take gambles.
Ron Rivera is becoming a very high-profile NFL coach. It’s been a remarkable climb up the ladder this season for the Carolina Panthers’ head coach, who was one of the primary names on the firing line early in the season when his team had a 1-3 record.
If you go back to the Panthers’ Week Five loss to the Arizona Cardinals, it was very troubling. They had blown their first two games of the year to the Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills before shutting out the New York Giants in Week Three.
The Panthers had a bye in Week Four and should have been well-prepared when they went to Arizona in Week Five. Instead, they played an awful game as their dropped a 22-6 decision to the Cardinals. It just seemed like Rivera had no idea what he was doing as a head coach.
It seemed unlikely he would survive his third season with his job intact.
Something had to be done if the former Bears’ linebacker and defensive coordinator was going to make a stand with his team. Rivera decided to become a more aggressive strategist at that time.
Riverboat Ron was born the following week when the Panthers went to Minnesota. Rivera eschewed two field goal attempts against the Vikings and decided to go for it on fourth-and-short situations. They were successful both times and the Panthers cruised to a 35-10 victory at the Metrodome.
Rivera did not make his decision based solely on trends, odds and realizing it’s a lot better to score seven points on a possession than three. It was about showing his quarterback Cam Newton that he had confidence in him.
Newton, the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, had certainly flashed his talent in his first two years with the Panthers. But when it came to playing consistently, Newton had not displayed that ability in a Panthers uniform. When the game was on the line, Newton was much more likely to throw an interception or miss a wide open receiver than make the precise pass needed to keep a drive alive.
But Rivera realized that if his team was going to win games, it needed to depend on its quarterback to make plays.
Everything else was in place for the Panthers. Rivera had built an explosive and aggressive defense that had one of the best middle linebackers in the game in Luke Kuechly and a superb pass rusher in Greg Hardy.
The Panthers also had a running game with DeAngelo Williams that was good enough to take the heat off of Newton. Opponents couldn’t focus solely on Newton because Williams, fullback Mike Tolbert and backup running back Jonathan Stewart were giving the Panthers a dependable ground game.
Rivera and Newton both came to the conclusion that the Panthers had all the weapons needed to turn their season around. Newton seemed particularly enthused after the Vikings’ game because Rivera put the ball in his hands and told him to go for it on fourth-down plays.
Newton has risen to the occasion this season, leading the Panthers to fourth-quarter victories over the 49ers, Patriots, Dolphins, Saints and Falcons. Those victories allowed his team to win the NFC South and claim the No. 2 seed on the NFC side of the playoff ledger.
Newton credited trial and error for his improvement this season. He said that when a young player comes into the NFL from college, he may have an idea of what he needs to do to win games, but he doesn’t truly know until he goes through it.
With each past failure, Newton learned something about himself and his teammates, and it allowed him to hone his approach.
Those changes allowed Newton to lead his team to 11 wins in 12 games.
Newton is not the least bit satisfied as the Panthers prepare to face the 49ers in the divisional playoffs. He knows that his team has played well enough to earn a postseason opportunity, but that’s all it has been to this point.
“I feel as if I haven’t achieved anything worth mentioning yet,” Newton told the Sacramento Bee. “Those things that I really want, that everyone has set forth before this season, are all within reach.
“Everyone talks about the great season that (I) and other players on this team have had, but I think we all come to each other and say nothing is worth mentioning unless we have something that we can all share with each other for years and years to come.”
Newton shares the same mindset as his coach.
After both were under the microscope for the wrong reasons at the start of the year, they now appear to be in lock step as they begin their playoff journey.