Ron Rivera: Chump or Champ?

29-38-13-7-15-8…the numbers that forged the legend of “Riverboat Ron.”  Rivera’s Powerball jackpot was big. It included a NFC South Championship, a 3-year contract extension, and the slick-ass moniker “Riverboat Ron.” The numbers weren’t random, however. They’re significant. Rivera had played these numbers for three years before hitting his payday.

2-9 (2011 start)
3-8 (2012 start)
1-3 (2013 start)
7-15 in games decided by less than 7 points.
8 game win streak (franchise record) that ended in a 12-4 season, a division title, and a home playoff game in 2013. 

Winning the Powerball jackpot removed the angst of losing for most fans.  It was an electrifying experience. Panther fans huddled around Rivera’s Panthers as they went on a hot streak that would make any Vegas pro jitter with excitement. The hot-streak ended, however, as they all do, in loss. Burned by the river card, Rivera walked away convinced he had made the right play. He was still Riverboat Ron, right?

All professional gamesters experience this defining type moment.  It’s not the hot streak. It’s not the loss. It’s not even that the loss came because of a bad beat. It’s the return to the tables that is the real test of a gambler’s fortitude.  Rivera's 2014 return to the high stakes table will determine his legacy in Carolina. 

Gamblers generally attribute winning to skill rather than luck. Despite their devotion to the numbers, the strategy, the game, there are times when they are reminded that they are still fundamentally games of chance.  In the end, the gambler is always gambling. The gamester can respond to these defining moments in two ways: through instinctual confidence or a developing a festering fear of failure. The burn can either resolve their confidence that chance can be mastered or paralyze them by the fear that chance is not in their favor.

So how will Riverboat Ron respond?  Is he a “chump” or a “champ?”

It wasn’t long ago that most thought Rivera was a chump. The “Fire Rivera” groups were loud and hard to discredit after the 1-3 2013 start. It was Rivera’s third dismal season start as a head coach.  Fan writers argued over who spotted Rivera as a degenerate first. This wasn’t just fan outrage alone, however.  Rivera had a legitimate problem.  Steve Smith indicated after the Arizona loss that they “were at a crossroads” and that “it was make or break for the players—and for the coaches.” Ironically, at the time Smith seemed the one person that could say something like this without fear that he was one of those players at the crossroads.   

Rivera’s back was to the corner and the writing was on the wall according to NFL’s Ian Rapoport: 

Sources: #Panthers have begun laying groundwork for a possible coaching search, doing background checks on candidates. 1 candidate knows.

With no other choice Rivera pushed his chips all in. His Panthers then went on a franchise record 8 straight hot streak, finishing the season 12-4 and NFC South champs.  Although impressive in itself, it was the way Rivera racked racked up the wins that important to establishing his “Riverboat” status.

Rivera had always “played it by the book.” Of ’85 Bear pedigree, Rivera wanted to hunker down on defense and, as Scot Fowler put, “when in doubt, punt.”  One fan yawned with dissatisfaction

Rivera played the numbers  tight and by the book, but for some reason he still found himself always on the wrong side of the bet.  It just seemed as if Rivera's Panthers were never willing to pull the trigger.  There was always a little hesitancy in truly gambling.  His dismal record of 2-13 record in games 7 or less points showed playing the book doesn't guarantee success. 

Rivera was going to have to start gambling. The conservative coach played it loose, converting 10-13 4 downs in 2013.  The Observer’s Scott Fowler described going for it on 4th down as Rivera’s new “religion.”  Many tried to say that Rivera was staying true to his statistical dogma. They were never just risks, but always carefully calculated decisions. The moves though were inherently risky.  He started to see that gambling, well, requires gambling!  Riverboat Ron started pushing the chips in at the right time. The fact that failure was imminent if he didn't put it all on the line seemed to ease the fear of failure that had made risk adverse in the first place.  

There is no play last season that represented this more than Rivera's decision to punt with 2:04 left and down by 3.  On the face, it seems like conservative Ron was back, looking to rely on his defense and hopefully push the game to OT with a late drive for a field goal.  This call  was gutsy.  It was risky. It was a gamble, and it paid dividends.  Rivera looked like a hard nosed Vegas pro that didn't shy away from high stakes when the Panthers pulled out the long shot win in the closing seconds.  Riverboat Ron was at the table and he still had the hot hand!

The thought that Rivera's bags were packed and at the door seems so foreign now. The hot-streak was exhilarating.  An NFC Championship, secured by the forging of a premiere defense, has given fans a taste of success that desperately needed.  Winning medicated the fan's pain and Rivera's headaches in Carolina. 

Was this enough though to classify Rivera as a champ though?

Rivera’s return from the precipice shouldn't erase memories of his near death experience. Winning does cure all.  It has for Rivera, temporarily anyway.  Losing, however, can just as easily revitalize the belief that he is a chump.

In the end, it will be Rivera’s return to the table that defines whether he is a "chump" or "champ."  

Tory Holt recently stated that he was concerned with the state of the Panthers' offense on the David Glenn show.  He noted that the offensive roster has taken clear steps backwards. This is especially disconcerting because Carolina’s offense was anemic last year.  How much worse could it really get? Rivera will be forced to make some tough calls next year.  He may find himself with this back to the wall more times than he would like because of that step backward observed by Holt. 

We’ll see if Riverboat Ron responds to the expectations created by 2013’s success with instinctual confidence or a fear of failure.  If Rivera continues to play it aggressive and go with his gut, he may just beat back the odds with a defense that allows him to gamble when opportune. If he finds himself at the table and fearful to make the risky call when it’s all on the line, he will end up being more chump than champ. 

I think Rivera can do it.  He’s got the cool demeanor, a grittiness that comes with any 85 bear, and a gutsy enough resolve that suggests he can find continued success in Carolina. He was criticized mercilessly prior to last year's turn around.  He's been honest that the pressure was high, but he's remained calm and confident throughout, reassuringly stating "I'm a good football coach. I know that somewhere along the line, if I get things in my favor, I think I can be successful. That's sort of what's happening now. You've got to be patient."  

We’ll just have to wait and see if he embraces the inherent uncertainty and risk that comes with any game of chance.  As long as Riverboat Ron remains willing to push the chips all in, he’ll prove his is no chump.