CHARLOTTE – When questions about quarterback Cam Newton's health became a hot topic last week, Newton pointed out that no one would be asking such questions if the Panthers were winning.
Sunday, after the Panthers lost again in part because of a late missed field goal following a series of conservative play calls, Newton took the same tact.
"If we would have won the game, that would have not been a question," Newton said. "It's just trying to find a way to win the football game."
Newton, of course, is right.
Second-guessing is a cottage industry in the NFL. Countless people actually make their living as professional second-guessers. And for each of those, there are millions of amateur second-guessers, an army of armchair quarterbacks with 20-20 hindsight at their disposal.
That tradition is part of what makes football so much fun – if you're not an NFL head coach.
When head coach Ron Rivera stood behind the podium, the emotion of a difficult loss still fresh, the first question he fielded was about the 46-yard field goal that just missed wide left with 1:22 left – or more specifically, the plays that preceded the kick.
"To win the game," Rivera simply said to explain the decisions. "That's the only reason."
To set the stage for any second-guessers hearing this for the first time, the Panthers trailed 19-17 when they gained possession at their 36-yard line with 2:08 to play. Three pass plays and 26 seconds later – with 1:42 left – the Panthers had already worked their way into range for strong-legged kicker Graham Gano at Atlanta's 32-yard line.
The Falcons had all three timeouts, so, in a show of confidence in Graham as well as the defense, the Panthers decided to run the ball from there.
"There are a lot of things that go into it," Rivera said. "I made the decision that I felt was best at that point in the game."
That's really all a coach can do. Sometimes the decision works out. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes things don't work out regardless of the decision made.
In this case, Rivera's decision would have been perfect if the Panthers had picked up a first down running the ball and forced Atlanta to exhaust all its timeouts – assuming the Panthers eventually scored. In that case, though, the decision would have been forgotten among so many other storylines.
It would have been a close-to-perfect decision if Gano had made the 46-yarder– though the decision would have been forgotten if Atlanta had still managed to score with 1:22 left and no timeouts.
Earlier in the second half, scores of second-guessers in the stands voiced their opinions when the Panthers, down 16-3, decided to punt twice on fourth-and-5s from the Atlanta 48.
In both cases, though, Rivera's faith in his defense was rewarded with a three-and-out, and his patience was rewarded when after the second one the offense finally got going and produced back-to-back touchdown drives to give Carolina the lead.
At the end of the game, Rivera did exactly the same thing. He "gambled" that his defense could keep the Falcons from scoring in 1:22 without any timeouts.
He might well have been right, but we'll never know because of Gano's uncharacteristic miss.
What we do know is the decision wouldn't have been criticized if the Panthers had won.
In fact, it wouldn't have been mentioned at all.