Carolina had several games last year go similarly, wherein they enjoyed fourth quarter leads before ultimately losing, sometimes in excruciating fashion for their fans. Among those games was one against the Atlanta Falcons that featured what ultimately became one of the more scrutinized decisions of the year by embattled head coach Ron Rivera.
Ahead 28-27 with 1:45 left in the game, the Panthers faced a fourth-and-1 at the Falcons’ 45. Rather than go for it, Rivera chose to punt the ball. Atlanta then managed to fashion a quick drive during the last minute to kick the winning field goal and steal the win from Carolina.
Many focused on the decision by Rivera to punt the ball rather than go for the first down, arguing that a QB Cam Newton sneak had such a high chance of succeeding that it was worth attempting as a means to secure the win. The number-crunchers had great fun analyzing the decision, with the ESPN Stats & Information group coming up with a conclusion that just by punting the ball rather than running a play, the Panthers’ chance of winning the game instantly dropped from 83.5% to 57.4%.
From the perspective of a fan on the couch who doesn’t watch the game with a scientific calculator handy, we still understood what we were seeing. Rivera is a conservative coach, and the decision to punt was yet another example of his “playing it safe.” Such a mindset no doubt led to other instances of losing leads and ultimately games, with non-risky offensive play calling and the “prevent defense” often preventing the team from being able to put games away.
I didn’t get to see Sunday’s game versus Seattle, as I only got home from Barcelona after it had completed. But reading up on it afterwards, I learned the Panthers ran just 49 offensive plays the entire game, with caution being the rule throughout. In fact, Newton only threw three passes that went more than 10 yards in the air with the longest being 23 yards.
Carolina has a new offensive coordinator this year, Mike Shula, who replaces the much more wide-open and aggressive Rob Chudzinski who got hired as a head coach by the Cleveland Browns. Much of the fallout from Sunday’s loss is that Shula was much too conservative with the play calling, and coupled with Rivera’s already risk-averse mindset a formula was in place for yet another disappointing result.
By contrast, the Philadelphia Eagles with their new head coach Chip Kelly got a lot of attention last night with their fast-paced, no-huddle offense that incorporates a lot unique formations and higher-risk plays that go down the field. Thanks to some Washington turnovers, the Eagles actually ran an incredible 53 offensive plays in the first half last night -- more than the Panthers did for their entire game Sunday -- and finished with 77 plays run and a 33-27 victory.
The difference in approach between the Week 1 performances of the Panthers and Eagles reminds me a lot of the different between the passive poker player and his aggressive counterpart. For Panthers fans it has long felt as though our team holds itself back somehow, making it hard to earn much in the way of reward because the Panthers are so unwilling to take risks. This approach has characterized Rivera’s two-plus years thus far and was also often true of previous coach John Fox, although every now and then Fox would impress with the occasional out-of-the-box maneuver.
Like the predictable play of Mr. Tighty McTighterson in poker, the Panthers’ conservative style makes life easy for opponents who don’t have to worry about being caught off-guard by unconventional plays. Obviously in both poker and football there are times in which tight really is right, but such cannot be adopted as a permanent guideline if only because doing so allows one’s opponent to become much too comfortable when calling their own plays, and more often than not correct when guessing yours.
All of which is to say, once again it’s feeling like as far as Carolina is concerned, a min-cash (i.e., a wild card playoff berth and a first-round loss) is just about the absolute best we fans can hope for, unless the Panthers figure out how to add a little variety to their game.