Many people were relieved on Sunday when the Carolina Panthers finally got a win by destroying the New York Giants 38-0, but no one more so than Ron Rivera. Rivera has been on the hot seat since midway through last season, when wins were scarce and late-game collapses were unfortunately in demand. Rivera’s bad game management skills were on full display during those troubling times. He refused to go for it on fourth and seal the game, leaving plenty of time for the opponent to drive down the field. Bad decisions like that seemed to come every game over the past two seasons, and they always had the same effect: heartbreak.
Rivera isn’t a terrible coach. He is still learning how to be a head coach, not a defensive coordinator, and one skill is just learning is knowing where to place your faith. As a head coach, Rivera can’t win the game himself; he has to put some faith in the people around him to help him make that happen, as does everyone else in the organization. Just as a quarterback puts his faith in his favorite receiver, Rivera must rely especially on certain people. Over the past two years, he has simply put his trust in the wrong people at the wrong time.
Part of Rivera’s conservative decision-making late in games is that he trusts his defense to close out the game for him instead of putting it on ice with the offense. This makes sense seeing as Rivera’s background is a defensive coordinator and a linebacker, so he knows how it is supposed to be done. Unfortunately, the Panthers aren’t the best equipped to close out games defensively. Carolina has had a sub-par secondary since Ken Lucas and Mike Minter left. Now that Chris Gamble is gone, the unit is even weaker. The unit was especially weak against Buffalo when four secondary players left the game with injury, and yet Rivera still left it up to the defense.
To be able to close games defensively in the era of high-octane passing offenses, a team needs corners that win in man coverage and a line that can bring pressure. While the Panthers surely have the latter, the former still eludes them. The Panthers secondary needed a lot of help from the linebackers to limit the Giants receivers in man coverage, and also stayed with two deep safeties most of the time to help over the top. The Panthers corners can’t hold up, and they can’t play zone or their opponent will kill them with short passes. So why should Rivera put his faith in them to close?
The fact of the matter is that Rivera needs to have faith in the offense, the newly updated current offense, not the one displayed against the Bills and Seahawks. Rivera also mistakenly put his faith in Mike Shula‘s ultra-conservative, pared-down offense, which was obviously a failure, so they made adjustments. The Panthers have a great power running game with DeAngelo Williams running behind arguably the best center in the league in Ryan Kalil and big Mike Tolbert, not to mention Cam Newton and Tolbert can consistently get short conversions due to their size. Rivera put his faith in the offense on Sunday and let the defense do its job, and the Panthers get their biggest win in franchise history in terms of point differential. There’s no reason for the offense not to be the closer, now we just have to see what happens in a close game.