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Good calls don't produce good outcomes

Posted Nov 21, 2012

When a close game ends in defeat, every single decision made by an NFL coach is scrutinized from every imaginable angle.

Here's one angle that sadly sometimes gets overlooked: Just because a decision doesn't work out like you hoped doesn't mean it was the wrong decision.

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera admitted that he, like some Panthers fans, has questioned his decision to punt in a pair of pivotal fourth-down situations against NFC South foes – after the fact.

But the fact remains, the decisions were sound at that moment and became debatable largely in retrospect.

In Week 4, the Panthers punted facing fourth-and-1 at Atlanta's 45-yard line, giving the Falcons the ball at their own 1-yard line with 1:09 to play and no timeouts, trailing 28-27.

Sunday, the Panthers punted facing fourth-and-1 at Tampa Bay's 49-yard line, giving the Buccaneers the ball at their own 20 with 1:02 to play and no timeouts, trailing 21-13.

The Falcons drove 77 yards for the game-winning field goal. The Buccaneers drove 80 yards for the game-tying touchdown and won it in overtime.

"Second-guess myself? Yes," Rivera said. "I've said, ‘Maybe I should have gone for it on fourth-and-one against Atlanta' - if we're going to lose that game. I said the same thing (Sunday) night, that maybe I should have gone for it on fourth-and-one.

"But then if you don't get it, you give them a short field. If you do get it, you're successful."

In both instances, Rivera made the right call. Like it or not, circumstances at the end of close games sometimes dictate that the opponent is going to get one final chance.

And even though those didn't work out for the Panthers, they still did the right thing by taking their chances with the opposing offense backed up against the wall.

"I think the biggest thing I've tried to do is to stick true to what I believe in as a coach and stay with it," Rivera said. "I've been asked a lot about decisions on certain other things, but there's so much you have to take into consideration.

"There's a lot of things that you can do. You can shoot from the hip if you want, but I've tried to do things based on what I've learned and based on what I think is best for us."

In both cases, the Panthers offense missed an opportunity to make it a moot point.

"Obviously, you want to end the game with the ball in your hands," offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said after Sunday's game. "We got a couple of first downs and burned some time off the clock, but we came up a yard short. We just have to do a better job."

But the offense didn't do a bad job by any stretch.

At Atlanta, the Panthers picked up a first down on the ground against a defense selling out to stop the run, and they had picked up a second one that would have allowed them to completely run out the clock – if not for a Cam Newton fumble the rolled back behind the line to gain.

Versus Tampa Bay, the Panthers picked up a pair of first downs through the air in a situation where many coaches wouldn't have been willing to throw the ball. Newton then ran for 10 yards on a third-down play, enough for a first down that would have allowed them to completely run out the clock – if not for the fact that they needed 11 yards after the Buccaneers' top-ranked run defense stuffed Carolina on the two previous plays.

Those circumstances left the opposition with a sliver of hope. Yes, the Panthers could have squashed that sliver with a fourth-down conversion, but they could have significantly fueled that hope with a failed fourth down.

Neither situation worked out the way the Panthers planned, but that's football.

"I believe in who I am and firmly believe in my abilities as a coach," Rivera said. "Do I have a lot to learn? Most certainly. And I have learned a lot, have grown and matured an awful lot. I've got the gray hairs to prove it."