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‘Riverboat’ Ron Rivera has a great nickname, but he’s not the gambler you think

Ron Rivera has a great nickname, but does he live up to it? (Chuck Burton/AP)

New Washington Redskins coach Ron Rivera has embraced the “Riverboat Ron” nickname he earned for his aggressive fourth-down decision-making with the Carolina Panthers, though he prefers to be known more as a calculated risk-taker than a gambler. “Analytical Ron” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Early in his coaching career, Rivera was quite the opposite, and it led to calls for his job. In Week 2 of the 2013 season, Rivera’s third year at the helm of the Panthers, Carolina led Buffalo 20-17 with less than two minutes remaining. Facing fourth and one from the Buffalo 21-yard line, Rivera opted to kick a field goal to take a six-point lead. The decision was hardly surprising; since 2011, only one other NFL coach had gone for it fewer times on fourth down than Rivera. The Bills drove 65 yards for the game-winning touchdown in the final seconds, dropping Carolina to 0-2.

After the loss, the Charlotte Observer ran an online poll asking whether then-owner Jerry Richardson should fire Rivera immediately. Eighty-three percent of the respondents said yes.

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Rivera’s transformation began the following week against the Giants. In the first quarter, on fourth and one from the New York 2-yard line, the Panthers went for it. Fullback Mike Tolbert scored a touchdown en route to a 38-0 Carolina win. Three weeks later, the Panthers converted a pair of fourth downs on an early touchdown drive in a 35-10 win at Minnesota.

ESPN’s David Newton, who helped coin the “Riverboat Ron” nickname after the win over the Vikings, asked Rivera a couple of days later whether, in hindsight, he would have gone for it on fourth down against Buffalo in Week 2.

“Which is the right call?” Rivera said with a smile. “The right call turns out to be one that you win with. If you win, it’s a great call.”

The Panthers won 11 of their last 12 games and converted 10 of their 13 fourth-down opportunities to close the season, resulting in an NFC South title.

“I needed to realize that playing conservative, playing close to the vest, playing by the book — sometimes you’ve just got to throw all that away,” Rivera told the Observer in 2014.

But is Rivera truly a gambler on the gridiron? Not exactly.

The Panthers went for it on fourth down 123 times from 2011 to 2019, giving them just the 25th-most attempts in that span. The Redskins, by comparison, went for it 140 times in that same span. The average NFL team made nearly 137 fourth-down attempts.

The Panthers, though, were a winning team under Rivera, and so we can also look solely at fourth-down decisions in the first three quarters when the score was within eight points — eliminating obvious catch-up situations. In those situations, the Panthers went for it on fourth down 36 times from 2011 to 2019. Nine teams went for it more often in similar situations.

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Carolina was, however, one of the most successful teams when it gambled, converting 78 percent of its score-neutral fourth-down opportunities. Only the Kansas City Chiefs had more success moving the chains during that nine-year window, converting 81 percent of their score-neutral fourth-down chances. Like Rivera said, “If you win, it’s a great call.”

In fact, since that 2013 campaign, Rivera has gone for it on fourth down in score-neutral situations only 23 times, a below-average rate for the years 2014 to 2019 and just a few tries fewer than his new team attempted. (The Redskins went for it 20 times in those situations; the Ravens led the NFL with 53 score-neutral fourth-down attempts).

If you make one more adjustment and isolate only those score-neutral situations in which Rivera found himself in his own territory — true riverboat territory — he went for it on fourth down only four times in nine seasons. (The Ravens led the NFL with 11 attempts in those situations, and the Cowboys were next with 10.)

It was a similar story in the playoffs: Rivera went for it only seven times in seven postseason games, and just two of those were in the first three quarters with the score within eight points. None of them were with the Panthers bogged down in their own territory. Playoff teams as a whole went for it 206 times on fourth down (all situations) over 176 playoff games from 2011 to 2018, which averages to just over one attempt per game, slightly more often than Rivera.

But the nickname persisted, and Rivera occasionally did enough to justify it. In November, for example, Rivera’s Panthers had two fourth-down conversions in a 30-20 win over the Titans, including one on fourth and four from their own 36-yard line.

“I just felt we needed a little momentum,” Rivera told reporters of his decision to go for it in a situation when most NFL coaches would punt. “Sure, we had a 10-point lead, but they’d just gone down and scored on us, and that was disappointing to me. But I just felt, sometimes you just can’t measure those things with numbers. There’s a feel in the game, and it’s just one of those things I felt we had to do something.”

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