By Dan Pompei
The other day Ron Rivera walked into a car dealership, and there on a desk was a coffee mug with a picture of Riverboat Ron. At that point, he figured, the phenomenon officially was out of his control. This was after The Ballad of Riverboat Ron Rivera, sung to the tune of "Proud Mary," hit the airwaves. Like it or not, he had a new name.
Rivera did not become Riverboat Ron the way most become high stake gamblers. He didn't start with small wages and then like the feel. He didn't win and then double down. It took a near disastrous wakeup call for him to realize he needed to just grab the damn dice and let them roll.
Rivera did not become Riverboat Ron when he was wearing shoulder pads. Linebackers typically plead with their coaches with wild eyes to take irrational chances. Rivera never was like that. He was calm, calculated, controlled, almost too wise for a player. But he played under one of the great gambling defensive coaches in NFL history in Buddy Ryan, and he sat at the foot of one of the most aggressive head coaches in the league in Mike Ditka. Somewhere, perhaps something was registering in the recesses of his mind.
Rivera did not become Riverboat Ron in a 14-year run as an assistant coach. He spent five seasons learning from Jim Johnson, the most accomplished blitzer in the league at the time. But then he went to Chicago and learned from Lovie Smith to hedge every bet he made.
Rivera did not become Riverboat Ron when he went to Carolina. He became an NFL head coach with wide eyes, having never been a head coach of anything. Rivera had lived most of his life in the shadows. As a player, he was a backup for six of his nine seasons. As a coach, he always had been an assistant, even for his son's peewee team. So as the head coach of the Panthers, he stepped cautiously. He went by the book that coaches are supposed to go by. Every coach who ever was fired has one. In his first 34 games, Rivera was a nickel slot machine kind of game manager, going for it on fourth and short fewer times than all but one other NFL coach over that time span.
Rivera did not become Riverboat Ron when Panthers owner Jerry Richardson decided to fire the general manager who hired Rivera last October. At the time, some thought Rivera, who is signed only through next season, would be next up on the firing line. Maybe all of that was in the back of his mind, but Rivera never has been the type to worry too much about forces out of his control. In 2007, Rivera's defense brought the Bears to the Super Bowl, but he was fired after the season for no good reason. Rivera shrugged it off, never uttering a bad word. It took eight interviews for a head coaching position in six years before he was hired by the Panthers. So he is realistic and even-tempered about the ways of the NFL.
Rivera did not become Riverboat Ron last offseason as he looked back at his 13-19 record over his first two years. But he did seek out the advice of Ditka, John Madden and Bill Cowher. One of his takeaways from his meetings with the three Super Bowl winners was that he should do things his way, not the way somebody else thinks they should be done.
Rivera did not become Riverboat Ron in the shower the day before training camp started in July. But as the water sprayed his back, Rivera kept thinking. His mind went back to three close games last season -- against the Falcons, Bears and Bucs. In the Falcons game, he chose to punt with a one-point lead and a little more than a minute remaining. In Chicago, the Panthers took a two point lead on a field goal, but gave the ball back to the Bears with 2:20 remaining -- too much time. Rivera called for a punt on a fourth and one on the Bucs' 49 with 1:09 remaining and an eight point edge. The Panthers lost all three games. If the Panthers had won those games, they would have been 10-6. So after Rivera got out of the shower, he went to the office to put together a tape of those plays, those decisions, to show the players how close they were.
Rivera did not become Riverboat Ron on Sept. 15 in Buffalo. On fourth and one from the Buffalo 21 with 1:42 remaining and a three-point lead, Rivera called for a field goal, which put the Panthers up by six. They lost when Dan Carpenter's extra point followed an E.J. Manuel touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson with six seconds remaining.
Two days later he left his office at Bank of America Stadium at 11 p.m. for the drive home. But work still was on his mind. He kept going over the decision that lost the Bills game. Round and round he went. Was he wrong? Should he have gone for it on fourth down?
The experts chastised him. "It's fourth and one for Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera," the headline in the Charlotte Observer read. The same paper ran a newspaper poll in which 83 percent of the respondents voted that Rivera should be fired.
As he headed down Stonewall Street, under the Belk Freeway, he was lost in thought. So lost, in fact, that he didn't notice the light at the intersection of Stonewall Street and Charlottetowne Ave. was red. He approached the intersection in his Mercedes Benz dealer car at full-speed, completely unaware he was about to be broadsided by another car barreling toward his.
As the tires squealed and the cars swerved and his heart pounded, a transformation occurred. No damage was done. In fact, damage was reversed. Riverboat Ron always was there, suppressed inside Rivera. It took for Rivera to be shaken for him to free Riverboat Ron. He stepped into his car at the Stadium that night as Ron Rivera. He stepped out as Riverboat Ron.
Life, it turns out, like a career, can be over in a flash. Sometimes, you need to take a wild chance, lose your inhibition, be yourself and not what some imaginary book says you should be.
"I finally figured out what I had been doing was going by the book, taking the points on fourth down--and it wasn't working," Rivera said.
One week later, in the first quarter of a scoreless game facing a fourth and one from the Giants' two-yard line, Riverboat Ron went for it. Mike Tolbert scored a two-yard touchdown, sending the Panthers on their way to a 38-0 victory.
Since the Bills game, Riverboat Ron has faced a dozen fourth and ones, and he has gone for it nine times, with the Panthers converting eight times. Riverboat Ron has gone for it in every quarter and from various points of the field. Six of the conversions came when the Panthers had a lead or were tied.
The Panthers have won nine of their last 10 games, giving them a chance to take over the NFC South with a victory over the Saints Sunday night. See, it wasn't just first downs the Panthers were gaining by going for it. It was swagger. It was freedom. It was a new identity.
And that is the story of Riverboat Ron.
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Dan Pompei has covered more than 500 NFL games, including 26 Super Bowls. He is one of 44 members on Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors board and one of nine members on the seniors committee. He was given the 2013 Dick McCann Award by the Pro Football Writers of America for long and distinguished reporting in the field of pro football. Follow him on Twitter @danpompei.