25 Seasons of Panthers Football: Rivera leads Carolina to postseason in 2013

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Like most good gamblers, Ron Rivera didn't become one overnight, and he always attempts to hedge his bets by carefully studying the odds before rolling the dice.

In other words, there is a whole lot more to "Riverboat Ron" and his methods of coaching the Carolina Panthers than the nickname may suggest at first glance.

Rivera entered his third season as head coach of the Panthers as plain old Coach Rivera. In fact, in his first two seasons Rivera earned a reputation for being conservative. The only coach in the NFL who went for it on fourth down less from 2011-12 was Denver's John Fox, whom Rivera replaced in Carolina.

That all changed on October 13 when Coach Rivera transformed into Riverboat Ron.

The 1-3 Panthers entered the game at Minnesota still stinging from an emotional loss four weeks earlier at Buffalo, where Rivera opted to kick a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Bills' 21-yard line with 1:42 left in the game. A first down would have sealed the victory, but the Panthers ended up losing 24-23 as the Bills scored the game-winning touchdown with two seconds left.

What happened stuck with Rivera, who recalled a conversation he had with former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson shortly after the loss to Buffalo.

"You do everything by the book. But Ron, is there really a book?" Richardson told Rivera.

"Something had to change," Rivera said. "And the truth of the matter is that I did. I had to change my outlook, change my attitude."

So when Carolina had a fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 32-yard line early in the game, Rivera didn't hesitate. He went for it - and the Panthers converted. Facing a fourth down from the Minnesota 2-yard line later in the same drive, he again went for it without hesitation, and the Panthers scored a touchdown.

"The reaction within the team was tremendous, because then we went out there and got a quick interception on defense right after that," Rivera said.

Carolina proceeded to win, 35-10, starting an eight-game winning streak. The run included a dramatic victory in Week 12 at the Miami Dolphins. On fourth-and-10 from his own 20-yard line with 2:33 left in the fourth quarter and one timeout remaining, Rivera decided to go for it. The Panthers made it and then drove the length of the field for the deciding touchdown.

Though it may have seemed like Rivera was going for it on fourth down every chance he got, he was quick to point out that "there's a thought process to it, and it's decided on a case-by-case basis. I don't just do it willy-nilly."

Rivera's point was that sometimes the correct gamble isn't the glamorous fourth-down conversion attempt by the offense that seems to garner all the attention. Sometimes the right call is to gamble on giving the ball back to the other team and having faith in your defense to stop them.

That was the case in a crucial Week 16 game versus the New Orleans Saints. Trailing 13-10 as the two-minute warning approached, Rivera punted, and the defense forced a three-and-out. Then the offense marched 65 yards for a touchdown in less than a minute to pull out the victory and clinch a playoff spot.

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"It's not always about the gamble of going for it on fourth down," Rivera said. "It's also about the gamble of saying, 'Hey, we're not going to go for it here. We're going to count on you guys (on defense) to hold them.'"

Linebacker Luke Kuechly said Rivera's gambling ways had a positive effect on the entire team throughout the season that produced a 12-4 record and NFC South title and earned Rivera the NFL Coach of the Year award.

Riverboat Ron and the Panthers ended up making 10-of-13 fourth downs and converted 8-of-9 on fourth-and-1 with four touchdowns on those plays.

"What that was kind of all about was that he had confidence in our team," Kuechly said of the birth of Riverboat Ron. "His thought process was, 'We're going to get it - and if we don't get it, our defense is going to play strong and get the ball back for us.' He was just very confident in what we were able to do.

"Most of the time we converted it on fourth down. But I think even the times when we didn't, he was confident enough in us as a defense that it wasn't going to hurt us too much. He's a very confident individual. He's not cocky and he's not arrogant, but he's very confident in what he's doing. And that rubs off on the guys."

Rivera admits that he didn't care for the nickname at first, believing it overshadowed his overall approach. But he has learned to like it. His wife, Stephanie, saw to it that the "Riverboat Ron" moniker got trademarked, and they use that mostly to raise money for charity.

Now there are T-shirts, coffee mugs and more with the proceeds benefitting charities such as the USO of North Carolina, Humane Society of Charlotte and Ronald McDonald House in Charlotte. Rivera even shot a commercial for a local car dealer where he's dressed in typical Old West gambler's attire, ready to sit down for a game of poker as Riverboat Ron.

"I've had to embrace it, because so many people started talking about it," Rivera said. "If there is an opportunity to help someone, we use the name to do that. The whole persona and how people have grabbed onto it, it's neat. But at the same time, I want people to understand that there is a little bit more to everything that I do."

Rivera believes the entire experience has helped him become a better football coach.

"What's been interesting is that I think it's been part of my growth and maturation as a head coach, as somebody who has to make decisions," he said. "I think it's all part of my growing and learning and understanding and trying to make decisions that I believe are the best for the football team.

"I think what happened was in making a couple of the decisions that I did in terms of going for it on fourth down, that sent a message to the guys that we're going to do whatever it takes to win."

Take a look at some of the best pictures from 2013 when Carolina won the NFC South division.

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