On Sept. 21, the Carolina Panthers were 0-2 ahead of a Week 3 matchup with the New York Giants. Not much was going well for the Panthers, and head coach Ron Rivera was on the hottest of coaching hot seats.
Rivera led the Panthers to a win over the Giants, but the following week his Panthers fell to the Arizona Cardinals, pushing them to 1-3 and pushing the Panthers’ front office to start plans to look for a new coach.
Here we are, 35 days later, and the Panthers have won five games in a row, including Sunday’s 10-9 road battle over the San Francisco 49ers. With the win, Carolina now sits within striking distance of the New Orleans Saints for the division lead.
A New Orleans loss to the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night would bring forth a two-way tie in the NFC South between the Saints and Panthers. That’s a huge statement considering, after Week 4, the Saints were 4-0 and the Panthers were 1-3.
Carolina is playing inspired football right now. Not only have the Panthers won five straight; they’ve done so in the stingiest of fashions. No team has scored more than 15 points on the Panthers during their five-game winning streak, and Carolina has given up just 11.4 points per game over that time.
That’s Ron Rivera football.
Rivera had never been a head coach prior to joining the Panthers in 2011. After playing in the NFL as a linebacker for the Chicago Bears, he worked his way around the league in a number of defensive coaching positions, from defensive quality to control coach to linebackers coach to defensive coordinator at two stops.
It’s easy to see that Rivera has a defensive mind. That mind has transformed Carolina’s laughable defense into one of the best in the game. This Panthers defense ranked second against the run and 10th against the pass headed into Week 10.
Up front, defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson bring immense pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Rookies Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei have turned into two of the best defensive tackles in the NFC, and they’re just nine games into their professional careers.
In the middle of the defense, linebacker Luke Kuechly was last year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year and has played this year like a near-future Defensive Player of the Year. Rejuvenated linebacker Thomas Davis—playing at a top level after three knee surgeries—has been a tackling machine this season.
Carolina’s front seven plays with anger, intimidating offenses that dare to attempt to gain yardage.
San Francisco managed just 151 total yards Sunday against the Panthers, and Carolina’s front seven rattled a typically unflappable Colin Kaepernick.
As much as this Panthers defense follows Rivera’s defensive teachings, Rivera actually taught himself a few things over the offseason after talking to three coaching legends.
According to Bryan Strickland of Panthers.com, Rivera met with John Madden, Bill Cowher and Mike Ditka and asked for advice. Not only did Rivera learn from these legends; he made up his own mind to be a little more aggressive himself, according to Les Carpenter of Yahoo! Sports.
Just how much became clear this spring when he prepared a video to show the players how single plays had cost them several games last season. He noticed a handful of fourth-and-short situations where he decided to do the safe thing and kick a field goal or punt rather than go for something more. He knew then he was going to have to change as a coach, taking a regular risk few men in his position dare to make.
After not heeding his own advice in Buffalo, which led to a 24-23 loss to the Bills, Rivera dialed the knob on his coaching style far to the right.
Enter “Riverboat Ron.”
Between Weeks 3 and 9, Rivera called seven fourth-down offensive plays instead of kicking the football, according to Carpenter. Carolina was successful on five of those for first downs.
Rivera didn’t feel the need to “gamble” in Sunday’s game against the 49ers. But had Cam Newton not fumbled near midfield and picked up his own fumble at the Panthers' 46-yard line—leading to a 4th-and-7 instead of a 4th-and-short—“Riverboat Ron” might have made an appearance.
And who would have argued?
Rivera has this Panthers team in a very favorable position. At 6-3, they hold a tiebreaker over the 49ers in any wild-card race, and they have a game advantage over the 5-4 Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. But because “Riverboat Ron” has the Panthers winning and this Carolina fanbase in a frenzy, no one’s looking at the wild card right now.
Carolina has its sights on an NFC South crown and possibly more, and Rivera is a big reason why. What a far cry from the early-season hot seat he was sitting upon.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.