The Panthers had a number of high-profile mistakes on the field Sunday in their 30-28 loss to Atlanta -- a loss that I believe will scar this team for the rest of the season, as I wrote in this column. (After listening to Ron Rivera on Monday, too, I am pretty convinced that Haruki Nakamura will be benched for Sunday's game vs. Seattle.)
But there were also two big mistakes made by head coach Rivera and his coaching staff in my opinion.
The most important was at the end of the game when Rivera didn't go for it on fourth and 1 at the Atlanta 45, instead punting to Atlanta and giving the Falcons one more chance to win. He said after the game he might have gone for it on fourth-and-inches (the ball was originally marked closer to the first-down line after a Cam Newton fumble that the Panthers recovered) but never seriously considered it on fourth and one.
Why? "Because if you don't get it right there, they only have to go 30 yards to try a field goal and that's why we decided to punt," Rivera said. The punt then was downed at the Atlanta 1, where the Falcons began with 59 seconds left and no timeouts.
Rivera's players stood behind him for that call. (ESPN's stats department did not, though, saying Panthers actually went against the percentages there based on this excellent blog item from Pat Yasinskas). But even as it was happening the pressbox I was shaking my head. Why not win or lose the game with your strength (offense) instead of counting on your weakness (defense) to win it for you?
As I wrote in today's column:
Rivera’s call was understandable in a vacuum. A great Panthers punt meant the Falcons took over at their 1, with just 59 seconds left and no timeouts.
But the coach has also seen the Panthers defense for two years. He knows its weakness against the deep ball (Haruki Nakamura had already given up a 49-yard touchdown earlier) and the big play (Carolina had also allowed a short dump pass to Michael Turner to go for a 60-yard TD).
And Rivera knows how good Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan is. Yet the coach played the same percentages John Fox and every other conservative NFL coach undoubtedly would have in the same situation. Instead of trying to seal the game by running the ball for a single yard – and the Panthers already had 199 rushing yards – Rivera punted.
It was, simply, a bad call – a “play not to lose” sort of call.
The other call was at the end of the first half, when the Panthers totally mismanaged the clock in a two-minute drill.
Down 17-14, the Panthers took over at their 20 with 1:49 left and all three timeouts. What followed was a succession of short passes and runs – but no timeout taken until there were only 35 seconds left and Carolina faced second-and-2 from its 40.
By then it was too late, and the Panthers’ hurry-up offense never even crossed midfield (and the Panthers never used one of their timeouts). If Carolina had gotten a field goal there, it might have changed things.
Now it's also true that the coaching staff had the Panthers extremely well prepared as a whole compared to 10 days ago -- they give Atlanta everything. The play-calling was creative. The Panthers figured out a way to pressure Ryan (7 sacks). But coaches are judged by wins and losses, as they all know. And the bottom line is that Rivera is now 7-13 in his first 20 games as the Panthers' head man.