Ron Rivera’s season can be boiled down to two failed decisions, both on punts. One was in the Week Four loss to the Falcons in Atlanta. The other was Sunday in a home loss to the Buccaneers that might have sealed his fate.
Both plays were on fourth downs. That down was not kind to two other coaches who might not survive the season — Cleveland’s Pat Shurmur and Jacksonville’s Mike Mularkey.
But first, Rivera and the Panthers.
It was bad enough they went into clock-milking mode with three-plus minutes left, but then when faced with nearly the exact situation Rivera saw seven weeks ago — 4th-and-1, on the opponent’s side of the field — he chose to punt. Again.
Assuming you don’t remember, the Panthers had a one-point lead and faced a 4th-and-1 from the Falcons’ 45-yard line. Rivera opted to punt (after a delay of game), giving the ball back to white-hot QB Matt Ryan.
The Falcons won. The Panthers went on to lose three more in a row (five total) after that.
And if you did not watch Sunday, the Panthers opted to punt with the same down and distance from the Buccaneers’ 49-yard line with 1:09 left in a game they led 21-13. The Buccaneers tied it in regulation, then won it in overtime. The Panthers’ loss leaves Rivera in dire trouble.
Rivera will be fired for losing games — Sunday was his 18th “L” in 26 games — but he might as well be fired for not knowing what kind of team he has. Even in a game in which the run game did more good things than the surface numbers would indicate (such as seven rushing first downs), Rivera went finesse and gave it back to Josh Freeman with Carolina’s short-handed defense once more asked to carry the load.
That’s what Rivera knows: defense. He believed in his scheme, which had forced Freeman into a rather ordinary game up until that point: 18-of-37 passing, 151 yards, TD, two INTs. But considering Freeman’s blistering streak coming into the game — 13 TDs, one INT the previous five games — Rivera should have known to try to win this game on offense. You’re 2-7. You’ve run well straight up the middle. You have a backfield that is more well-paid than the Hostess CEOs. Use it.
GM Marty Hurney took the fall earlier this season for not constructing a roster properly. Rivera could be let go for not using the talent he has.
The same kind of front office-coaching disconnect is at work in Jacksonville. Mularkey decided that having Chad Henne throw it on 4th-and-10 from the Houston 47 with 2:36 left in overtime — as good a game as he had aside — was the best plan. For a team that drafted a punter (and a pretty good one) in Round Three, that’s fairly absurd to ask of a backup quarterback. Punt and live to fight another day. The incomplete pass and subsequent Texans game-winning TD ruined a great effort by Mularkey’s team.
The 4th-and-goal fade pattern from the 1-yard line by the Browns to a backup tight end? Oh, I hated that, too. But we found out a few weeks ago that fourth-down decision making was not Shurmur’s forte when he went for it on his own 28 with almost four minutes remaining, down seven with two timeouts left.
More than talented coordinators and play-callers — and these three coaches certainly qualify as such — NFL owners seeking new head coaches this offseason should focus on finding situational football geniuses. Men who obsess about situational football on both sides, the way Bill Belichick and Jeff Fisher and Tom Coughlin do, are the ones who most often make the best head coaches.
Those who routinely make soft, shaky, questionable decisions in key moments are doomed to fail. There’s a reason why we define great teams as being clutch. They most often are mentally and physically tough and talented, but they also have coaches who take pre-determined, smart, calculated risks at the right times and live to fight another day when the time is right.
That’s what Rivera, Mularkey and Shurmur are not likely to do — live to fight another day. They should know why, and their owners should learn that lesson before picking their replacements.
Home-field advantage? Not for these teams
The Falcons are 5-0 at home this season and have a Georgia Dome record of 31-4 under Mike Smith and Matt Ryan, but there’s something just not right about this team in Atlanta this season.
They nearly blew a 20-0 lead against the Broncos in Week Two, needed a last-minute drive after Rivera's gift to clip the Panthers in Week Four, barely beat the Raiders (gifting them three interceptions) in Week Six, survived the Cowboys in Week Nine and then Sunday staked the Cardinals to a 13-0 lead and barely went on to win despite the Cardinals’ major offensive issues and mid-game QB benching.
The Falcons spent much of the past month crowing about a lack of respect. The way they get it is by playing better against lesser teams in their building.
There were some positive elements to the Falcons’ comeback victory against Arizona, despite Ryan’s unsightly five-pick meltdown, which pretty much knocks him out of the MVP talk. But not enough.
The Falcons flustered the Cardinals’ quarterbacks, and Larry Fitzgerald didn’t have a catch until the fourth quarter. But Falcons CB Dunta Robinson dropped a sure INT, there was bad tackling on LaRod Stephens-Howling’s 52-yard run and the Cardinals almost converted a late fourth down and stole back the victory.
Until proven otherwise, the Falcons are a good but hardly great team.
Ryan looked lost without a healthy WR Julio Jones, who was in and out of the game and mostly ineffective, and the Cardinals really blew up the middle of the Falcons’ offensive line. The Falcons are 5-0 at home but have only outscored their opponents by a total of 21 points.
The Giants were a 4-4 team at home last season prior to the playoffs, but Super Bowl teams typically are far more dominant at home than what the Falcons are displaying. The Texans (my top-ranked team in the Week 10 power rankings) raised equal concern against Jacksonville (my 32nd-ranked team in Week 10) by almost losing to the 1-8 Jaguars and a backup quarterback. The Cowboys haven’t resembled a Super Bowl team this season, but their shaky OT victory against the Browns makes you wonder how much these next two home games really mean, even if Dallas is now 5-5.
The NFC South is officially now a battle. The 9-1 Falcons might have a serious edge, up three games on the 6-4 Buccaneers and four on the 5-5 Saints. But the Falcons face the Bucs in Tampa in Week 12 and the Saints on a short week four days later. If the Falcons can’t close things out, it could come down to a Week 17 battle at Atlanta vs. those miracle-working Bucs in Atlanta. Where the Falcons can’t seem to put people away.
The pleasures of a talented offensive line
What a joy a good offensive line is. What a hindrance not having one is.
Witness the Panthers’, Cowboys’ and Eagles’ terrible excuses for lines and their inability to move the ball consistently Sunday. Then pair those with the groups the Patriots, Bengals, Saints and Broncos trotted out in Week 10.
The Patriots started slowly up front and had a slew of problems in August and September, but this unit (sans Logan Mankins) has stepped up in a big way. Tom Brady had a clean uniform at the end of the 59-24 win over the Colts.
The Bengals typically don’t get respect for their strong play up front, and a four-game losing streak a few weeks back didn’t help. But Andy Dalton has been working without a lot of pressure in his face (when he’s often at his worst), and C Trevor Robinson has risen up into the starting spot the past three games.
Like the Patriots, the Saints got off to a slow start. But ever since OL coach Aaron Kromer has given up his head-coaching hat and returned to coach up the big uglies, the Saints have run the ball effectively and with power. No shocker they’re far better.
The Broncos have just gotten better and better each week as they gain a rapport with Peyton Manning, and his sacks have gone from 10 in the first five games to four allowed in the past five. Yes, three of those sacks came Sunday, but Manning walked into one of them. The Broncos blocked well most of the game, especially so after Willis McGahee left with an injury.
The Panthers have no offensive identity. The Cowboys are a weekly adventure. The Eagles are a total mess. Actually, there are about a dozen other bad teams — strangely, not the Chiefs — you could throw into the category of lacking up front. It’s no secret why they are bad. A good offensive line can make life so easy.