CHICAGO -- The Carolina Panthers lost to Chicago, 23-22, on Sunday, and there is plenty of blame to go around as the team threw away a 19-7 lead entering the fourth quarter.
But let’s concentrate a minute on the coaching. Head coach Ron Rivera and his staff made two awful decisions in this game that helped the Bears to a win – and sent Carolina (1-6) reeling to its fifth straight loss.
Decision 1: With Carolina ahead 13-7 and three seconds to go before halftime, the Panthers had the ball at the Chicago 33. Justin Medlock – who already had made two field goals and won the field-goal competition in the preseason primarily because he has such a strong leg -- had a chance at a 50- or 51-yard field goal.
Instead, Rivera skipped the field goal and decided to try a desperation heave into the end zone. Cam Newton then threw the ball almost through the goalposts. No points for Carolina – in a game decided by one point.
What was the downside of going for the field goal? Practically zero. If Medlock misses, so what? The half’s over.
Only a block and a return for a touchdown could have hurt Carolina. Rivera’s reasoning on why not to go for the field goal, taken from the transcript of his postgame press conference: “Well, because of the cross wind and stuff like that, that ball comes out at that point. It’s getting pushed. That was one of the concerns. We thought our best bet was to throw it into the end zone and see what happens. In hindsight, you can say that maybe we should have gone ahead and tried it…. It’s easy to second-guess at this point.”
Decision 2: With the Panthers ahead 22-20 and Chicago needing a field goal to win, the Bears start at their own 22 and with 2:20 on the clock. Carolina goes into a soft zone defense, keeping all the Bears’ receivers in front of them. The problem: there’s way too much time left for this strategy. The Bears basically run the same play all the way down the field – a 10-12 yard pass to Jay Cutler’s left, in front of cornerback Josh Norman, usually to Brandon Marshall – and finish the game with a field goal at the final gun.
Panther players were careful not to criticize their coaches directly after the game, but several did point out the Bears ran the same play over and over against the same coverage.
Rivera’s reasoning: “We were trying to keep the ball in front of us. It’s one of those things where if you jump it and they double move you, now all of a sudden it’s a touchdown or the ball is in field goal range. We were trying to make them systematically beat us. They got in field-goal position, and you take your chances at that point.”
The part that sticks out to me in that quote? “We were trying to make them systematically beat us.”
Well, if that was the goal, the Panthers certainly succeeded.
Now the work Rivera and his team did Sunday – a lot of it was good. Although the “kick-it-away-from-Devin-Hester” strategy was ugly at times, it was pretty effective. Taking the zone-read out of the running game was a positive. The defensive front four played really well.
But you lose a game like this – one the Panthers really should have won, as they outgained the Bears almost 2-to-1 in yardage – it is the kind of game that haunts people and gets them fired.
“I don't know what to say,” cornerback Josh Norman said. “We just get our hearts ripped out every week.”
11 months ago