The Panthers got away with one on Sunday.
Cam Newton said his play wasn’t up to par and Coach Rivera admitted that while winning was a great deodorant, the team made mistakes across the board AKA they stank. In a home game coming off a bye, against a floundering Giants team, the Panthers looked to be in for a special day in the first quarter, with two Panthers recording their first touchdowns in the first 17 minutes, only to need Graham Gano’s heroics to pull a win out of a game they led by two scores twice – had Gano’s kick not sailed through, not only would Curtis Samuel and Colin Jones’ first touchdowns be largely forgotten, the Panthers would be standing at 2-2, looking up in the standings at New Orleans and in the midst of the mire of the NFC Wild Card race.
While the mistakes were numerous on Sunday, the duo of Rivera and Newton have not excelled in game management aspects through the first quarter of the season. On the first play of the Panthers second drive, with just under half of the first quarter remaining, Ron Rivera challenged a 12 yard catch for Devin Funchess. Yes, Funchess caught it and they got the review correct, but because of the current challenge system, the Panthers were down to one challenge for the remainder of the game.
Fast forward to a third-and-four on the Panthers opening drive of the second half, where Rivera again was faced with a chance to challenge an Ian Thomas almost-catch – most seem to think it was complete.
Rivera threw the red flag, but when the officials stuck with the call on the field of incomplete, Rivera lost his cool and argued with the officials, which he said after the game negatively impacted his team’s performance for a stretch – perhaps even for the remainder of the contest. Rivera’s frustration, however, was not due just to the ruling, but also because he was now out of challenges and had burned a time out with 13:30 left in the third quarter, in a one score game. Less than seven minutes later, they had burned their second timeout – on a second-and-10.
The opportunity cost of both challenges – at least the second would’ve extended a drive – are mistakes that can ultimately cost a team as the stakes get higher – the use of challenges isn’t, however, the biggest concern facing Rivera, Newton and the offensive coaching staff.
The Los Angeles Rams appear to be the team to beat in the NFC and with an offensive mastermind calling the game, they’ve managed to average just under 35 points per game; a year after clock mishaps cost the Rams their season, Sean McVay was quick to act – while Jedd Fisch’s official title is “Senior Offensive Assistant”, the role he actually occupies is “Clock Management Specialist”. We’ve seen this quick action – although not to the length of McVay – with Coach Rivera, in the 2014 birthing of Riverboat Ron. The Panthers not only focused on going for it on fourth-and-short, but also in managing timeouts and the game, specifically in end of half and end of game situations.
While neither Newton or Rivera is routinely credited for their execution in the last two minutes of halves, quietly they’ve been some of the best. Over the last five seasons, no team has scored more offensive touchdowns (25) than the Panthers in the last two minutes of the first half. The Panthers have also tacked on 14 field goals (39 total scores), trailing only Seattle (43) and New Orleans (40) for total scores before the half – the Panthers led the league in both points in the final three minutes of the second quarter (64) and points on the drives to open the third quarter (38) in 2017.
Most importantly, the Panthers would go on to win 31 of those 39 games over the past five years.
Over the same stretch, the Panthers have been one of the best at scoring in the closing minutes of a one-score game. The Panthers have scored 17 times in the final two minutes of a close game and they’ve won 13 of those games – only the Lions have won more games with a late score during that stretch.
2013-2017 Scores in the Last Two Minutes Of the Fourth Quarter Of A One-Score Game
This season, even with the Gano 63-yard field goal on the books, the Panthers have mustered only three scores, all field goals, in the final two minutes of either half. In the opener, the Panthers had first-and-10 in the Dallas red zone with 29 seconds left. Cam was was sacked on first down and the team had to settle for a spike to stop the clock and a chip shot field goal.
In the team’s second game, the Panthers had first-and-10 with 2:30 – and all their timeouts – before the half. 40 seconds later they were forced to punt and Matt Ryan engineered a touchdown drive to give the Falcons a lead; in the fourth quarter, they allowed half of the remaining 52 seconds to tick down, saving their timeout for their final heave into the end zone, which when it hit the ground resulted in their first loss
Against the Giants, in the closing seconds of the game, the Panthers managed just two plays in the final 30 seconds – including a run up the middle – before settling for a 63-yard field goal.
Tidying these areas up will be important if the Panthers hope to make noise in the playoffs. That there have already been three games where execution in the last two minutes has been lacking should sound an alarm to Rivera, Newton and the rest of the offensive coaching staff – to see them escape with these slip-ups is great, but there will be a day when they need to execute at the highest level and while they certainly can, they haven’t so far in 2018.
The late scores before the half have been a vital part of this team’s success; while Belichick and the New England Patriots are the ones so often credited with this attention to detail, it’s been a major factor for the Panthers turning momentum and extending leads heading into the locker room during the success of the current era. With everyone from the top down being all-in on this season, Ron Rivera and Cam Newton need to return to form if 2018 is going to be as special as some of the early season memories indicate that it can be.
The clock is ticking.