CHARLOTTE — Ron Rivera said he’s not turned into a riverboat gambler.
But the Panthers third-year head coach said he’s learning that winning football games means sometimes means stepping out of his comfort zone and taking a few risks.
Those risks were rewarded on Sunday.
Rivera, a former defensive coordinator who tends to be conservative by nature, stepped out on a limp Sunday by going for it on fourth and 1 twice on Carolina’s opening drive. The result was a touchdown that set the tone for Carolina’s 35-10 rout of Minnesota — and possibly ushered in an era of a new, more aggressive Rivera.
“Sometimes you play by the book and you miss opportunities,” Rivera said.
Rivera said he purposely made a concerted effort to be aggressive in his game decisions on Sunday in the red zone, saying the Panthers (2-3) can no longer afford to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns. He said part of that was playing on the road in a hostile environment against what he felt was a potentially explosive Vikings offense.
“As a defensive coordinator you look at it one way and then putting on the hat of a head coach you have to look at it from a different perspective,” Rivera said. “And it’s something that I’ve kind of grown into.”
Or rather, something he’s growing into.
Rivera was criticized for his decision in week two to not go for a fourth and 1 late in Buffalo territory with the Panthers leading by three.
He settled for a field goal and the Bills drove the length of the field to win the game 24-23 on a last-second touchdown pass by EJ Manuel.
A different Rivera showed up at the Metrodome on Sunday.
The Panthers were aggressive all day and never let the Vikings establish any momentum.
Cam Newton and his teammates said a big reason was Rivera’s decision to go for it on separate fourth and 1 situations from the Vikings 32 and 2.
“For him to trust us means a lot and it speaks volumes,” quarterback Cam Newton said after the game. “He is a defensive coach by nature, so he always has that conservative mentality. But I think that he is kind of breaking his mold to a degree, and giving the whole team confidence with him.”
Newton followed up perhaps his worst game as a professional at Arizona with what Rivera called “one of his best two or three games” of his career against the Vikings, throwing for 242 yards and three touchdowns while running for 30 yards and another score.
Panthers guard Travelle Wharton said Monday he believes the decisions gave the offense a needed jolt of confidence.
“I was excited,’ Wharton said. “As an offensive lineman you live for those challenges to go for it, pick up the first down and keep the drive rolling.”
Rivera said he plans to continue to coach more aggressively, a philosophy that has Newton and his teammates excited moving forward.
The Panthers host the St. Louis Rams (3-3) on Sunday.
“II’s been an enlightening situation for me and one of the things I want to try to do is make sure we’re in the best position to win,” Rivera said.
When a reporter asked Rivera about being dubbed “Riverboat Ron,” he chuckled and said, “No, that’s not a gamble. It’s what I believe is a calculated attempt.”
Rivera means it.
He has a checklist of 32 things he looks at before every game ranging from where the game is being played to who they’re playing, how they’re moving the ball and whether they’re supposed to win the game or not.
Rivera said in the past most of his approach leaned toward being more conservative by nature when it came to going for it on fourth down.
“Obviously my attitude has changed on a few of those points,” Rivera said.
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