Riverboat Ron Rivera

People do change, of course, but it normally takes time. A lot of time. It took Darth Vader three whole movies to change. It took James Bond about a quarter century to change from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig. These might not be the best real life examples, OK. The point is that that change, real change, definitely takes time and that is what makes this Ron Rivera story amazing and stupefying and utterly absurd.

Here, I immodestly quote from a column written on September 23, one week after Carolina coach Rivera had kicked a field goal on fourth and one against Buffalo when a first down would have won the game. The Bills came back and won. I wrote this:

From what I can tell just about everyone: 1. Likes and admires Ron Rivera as a person. 2. Believes he way too conservative and unimaginative.

Here, I quote ESPN’s Jon Gruden during Monday night’s Carolina-New England game.

“Riverboat Ron! ... It will be interesting to watch Riverboat Ron! ... Well, let’s see what will Riverboat Ron do! ... Riverboat Ron!”

Who in the heck is Riverboat Ron? Oh, wait, seriously? He means Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera? He means the man who before September 22nd was being criticized all over Charlotte and seemed on the brink of being fired for being stodgy and monotonous and safe? Yep. Now, less than two months later, they’re calling the guy Riverboat Ron, and he is coaching the hottest team in the NFL. It happened overnight. Well, not quite -- it happened over one week. Still, that’s fast. Put it this way: Last year, Carolina went for it on fourth down NINE TIMES all year. Nine. This with a quarterback who is like 17 feet tall and weight 49,000 pounds. Nine times all year. Only five teams in the NFL went for it on fourth down fewer times. If you include 2011, Rivera’s first year as coach, only the Houston Texans went for it on fourth down less than Rivera’s Panthers.

So what changed? On Sept. 22nd -- one week after the Buffalo fiasco -- the Panthers played New York and went for it on fourth down from the Giants 2. The game was scoreless. It was just the first quarter. The first quarter! What happened to the importance of scoring first? Don’t know, but they went for it for the first time all season. The Panther scored. Carolina went on to romp the Giants 38-0.

On October 6, after the bye week, the Panthers lost to the Cardinals 22-6. During that game, with the score tied 3-3, Carolina went for it on 4th and 1 in the second quarter. They did not make it, but they went for it.

One week later, in Minnesota, the Panthers first drive led them to fourth and one in Minnesota territory. The Panthers went for it and got the first down. Later in the drive, they had fourth and goal from the Minnesota two. Rivera went for it. Cam Newton threw a touchdown pass to Steve Smith. The Panthers stomped the Vikings from there.

Two weeks later, against Tampa Bay, the Panthers led by eight in the third quarter and faced a fourth and one in field goal range. It seemed the obvious field goal move -- go up two scores seems to be one of the key principles of the Conservative Coaching Manual (or The Book of Boredom -- a new off-Broadway Show). Carolina went for it, got the first down, scored the touchdown, rolled to victory.

One week later, it happened again: This time against Atlanta. Carolina led 7-3 in second quarter and faced fourth and 1 from the Atlanta 14. Not only did the Panthers go for it but Newton threw a pass to Greg Olsen who scored, giving the Panthers a 14-3 lead and the rout was on. Riverboat Ron doing riverboat things.

Of course, going for it on fourth down is not the only measurement for how conservative or radical a coach may be, but it’s a pretty decent starting point. Ron Rivera changed. And something fundamental changed with the Panthers. No, they are not suddenly playing revolutionary, free-for-all, run-and-shoot, no-huddle, Chip Kelly football -- the Panthers are still, at their core, a team that wins with great defense and turnover margin and power running, you know, all the Woody Hayes stuff. The Panthers still run the ball more than they pass it.

But something’s different. Rivera’s shift seems to have had a dramatic effect on the psyche of the team. Maybe it’s an illusion but there seems a looseness Carolina plays with now, a weight-off-the-shoulders freedom that inspires the offense to run all sorts of fun things -- the Panthers will run some Wildcat, some option, some quarterback sweeps, some zone read, some play action -- and inspires the defense to swarm to the ball. So much of it probably comes down to confidence, and so much of confidence comes down to winning, and it’s probably a fool’s errand to try and find direct cause and effect in here. But Rivera definitely started to coach less by the book and with more boldness.

And it seems players like to play for bold coaches willing to take a risk. I often think about something future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez said about greatness. He was explaining that to become a great player, it’s not enough to do what you are supposed to do. You have to do MORE than the other guy. “People talk about practicing hard,” he said. “That’s nothing. Everybody practices hard. It’s what you do after practice that makes the difference.”

The same seems true of coaching. Every coach in the NFL knows the game. Every coach in the NFL works obsessively. Every coach in the NFL has a dozen experienced assistant coaches who study film and break down the strategies and tendencies in countless ways. Every coach in the NFL knows the conventional thing to do.

Maybe, then, one of the things that separates coaches and teams is all the stuff beyond that baseline. Bill Belichick seems more obsessive and more willing to try something new than other coaches. Pete Carroll seems more imaginative and more determined to find ways to connect with his players than other coaches. Bill Cowher was more emotional and a resolute than others, perhaps, and Tony Dungy might have been more thoughtful and willing consistent in purpose. Bill Parcells loved going for it on fourth down, and Bill Walsh loved working the chalkboard to create a mismatch you never saw coming, and Vince Lombardi looked for ways to scare the heck out of his players. Maybe those things made the difference. Talent helps too.

And Ron Rivera decided one day that he did not want to be that respected coach who never took a chance. He was desperate, of course. George Brett, when asked why he went to batting coach Charlie Lau and completely changed his style, said: “I was hitting .220.” Ron Rivera, when pushed to the brink of being fired, decided to open things up a bit, go for it on fourth down now and again, live a little closer to the edge. The Panthers have won six games in a row and suddenly look like real contenders. Coincidence? It could be. It doesn’t really matter. Riverboat Ron Rivera is a much better nickname then Former Coach Ron Rivera.